University: Mourning & melancholy

This is a re-worked version of an essay, written for my master’s program. It’s a critique of University (with some hopeful elements).

I can speak of two universities. I can understand the first the by returning to its founding document, the New Zealand government’s Tertiary Education Strategy. In conjunction with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry of Education writes up a document of “long-term strategic direction” for tertiary education. The language is unapologetically neoliberal, “this strategy has been designed to guide tertiary education and its users towards a more prominent contribution to a more productive and competitive New Zealand.” Users, productive, competitive. The strategy speaks of the university as an instrument for growing the national economy, reminding its readers that international education is the fifth largest – and growing – export industry for New Zealand. This tight embrace of university and economy births the situation in which I find myself. For example, the department I work out of, International Relations, was restructured in 2011 to focus on Asia and Strategic Studies; two thematic areas which closely align with New Zealand’s trade and foreign policy interests.  Similarly, in 2015 the department began offering 12 month masters programs, partially to attract more lucrative international students. While the economic imperative looms, the courses on offer are increasingly pragmatic – Non-Western Philosophy replaced by US Strategy towards Asia and the Middle East – class sizes bloom, and theory appears as irrelevant and cumbersome to the task of acquiring a degree which will ideally be exchanged for steady employment. This is the first university, with which I am well acquainted.

If the second university has a founding text it is perhaps something like Plato’s The Republic. However, I am not so mean as to compare the Tertiary Education Strategy with Plato! A more comparable text, with some of the spirit of The Republic intact, might be Section 162 of the Education Act (1989). In statute, New Zealand universities are held to be “primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence” and to “accept a role as critic and conscience of society.” Again, the language is revealing – intellectual, independence, conscience. Against this Act, we can make sense of popular images of what an academic is; as someone occupying a transcendent space set apart from culture, free for intellectual adventure, and as caught up in a project of social import. All three claims are far from unproblematic, and have been thoroughly problematized. And yet, insofar as they point back to some idea of intellectual pursuit, they remain deeply compelling. The attractiveness of this vision is especially so for outward projections of the university; for instance, Victoria University of Wellington’s advertising material. The dominant image is of a young woman, standing alone (independent), thinking (intellectual), against a backdrop of Wellington city (does she have a conscience for the polis?). My acquaintance with this second university has primarily taken place here, in the realm of representation.

Image from Victoria University’s advertising campaign

What is it to find myself in the first university when I came looking for the second? Sometimes we are subjected to loss; we have loved a person, or an abstraction in the place of a person, which has left us, maybe through death, maybe through their own choice which we cannot control. Sometimes we are subjected to absence; we long for that which is not and has never been. The stakes for distinguishing between the two are high; we can misrecognise absence as loss and waste ourselves in pursuit of something which cannot be, or conversely, we can misrecognise loss as absence and accept contingent suffering as inescapable. In short, absence is simply a constitutive fact of life, while loss could have been otherwise.

So to which – loss or absence – does my experience of university belong? At first glance, perhaps it appears as one of absence; I have not had the second university, in order to be able to lose it. However, absence and loss rarely exist in tidy binaries. While I may not have walked the halls of the second university, I am acutely aware of its lack of presence, as I keep being brought into contact with it in through representations like the advert above. To find this difference between of outward representation and inward nature can be characterised in Freud’s language as the loss of an abstraction. I’m pretty sure this lost abstraction is shot through with unrealisable (yet marketable) desires for a utopian academy. And that this utopian content within my desired university belongs to absence, to that which cannot be. Yet I am deeply uncomfortable rendering all of the second university unrealisable; insofar as I can point to historical moments far closer to the sought after abstraction than the Tertiary Education Strategy and its manifestations, I can be sure that the second university is not wholly unrealisable here in the world. For the neoliberal university has not always been, and concrete traces of the academy’s other moments remain to remind us of this (Section 162 of the Education Act, for example). That’s why here I am speaking of neoliberal university education as loss rather than absence, though it’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion.

If I experience university as loss, what should I do with that sense of loss? Should I leave? Should I stay and be miserable? Loss prompts response. What responses for dealing with this loss are open to me and to other students who might feel the same?

A campaign of melancholic Wellbeing

One possible response is melancholia. Melancholia is loss turned inward. In Freud’s weird, yet helpful language, melancholia is a process of withdrawing libidinal energy is from the love object – from the university. In mourning, this energy would take up another love object. But in melancholia it is instead displaced on to the ego. Yet, one’s own ego cannot really serve as one’s love object, so the ego instead becomes an identification with the lost love object. Or, to move away from Freud’s language of libidinal economy, all of the pain caused by the loss is misinterpreted as being caused by the loss of one’s own self. Freud himself actually puts this quite plainly for us, writing that “in mourning, the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so.”

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Why would I think that I am poor and empty rather than the university? Well, Freud blames ambiguous loss, especially the loss of abstractions, like the second university, rather than ‘real’ physical things, like a person. If I’m not quite sure what I’ve lost, I might just pin it on myself.  In the case of my loss, this ambiguity is greatly heightened by the university’s strategic disavowal of loss in its advertising, leaving me to question if any loss has really taken place at all. Ultimately, the likelihood of me being able to name precisely the spectre of loss I feel has been diminished.

Now, as well as the ambiguous nature of my loss, there are languages (or discourses) floating around the university which encourage this interpretation that I am the cause of my own sense of loss. One such language that I would like to draw attention to is the current Wellbeing campaign. I want to focus on this campaign because it’s one of the most accessible on languages on campus and one of the most problematic. In response to increasingly high numbers of students reporting ‘poor emotional well-being’ (approximately 46% of students), Victoria University launched their Wellbeing campaign. The image below is taken from the campaign’s pamphlet on money, one of several areas of student life addressed. The pamphlet encourages students’ to “find ways to improve your relationship money” listing four possible relationships, each with corresponding emoticons. The bottom relationship is clearly the preferred: “you know it’s important […] but it’s not so important to sacrifice your health or wellbeing for it”, yet “a competitive, ambitious” relationship is also endorsed as “great”.

VUW’s Wellbeing campaign pamphlet

To me, this approach feels like it’s missing the mark – there is no discussion of structural constraints which persist regardless of whether I have a ‘balanced’ approach to money or not (say gender). And weirdly, debt is only mentioned once as “a good investment”. In this way, the campaign’s attempt to improve student wellbeing works to reduce one of the most stressful aspects of student life – finances – to an attitudinal problem, to my relationship with it. I don’t buy this narrative; it simply doesn’t matter how much I pursue a balanced relationship with my student loan, it’s still not going to be enough to pay my rent. Yet this is the recurring message I receive from across the campaign’s thematic areas (health, identity, connection, and money): the difficulties I face are not difficulties ‘out there’ in the world, but rather in me, in my inward disposition toward them. In short, this is a melancholic response to my loss.

What would happen if I was to accept the Wellbeing campaigns narrative? Aside from me being miserable, what would the political implications of this response be? I think the answer here is quite simple; the political implications would be nothing, I’d be too busy trying to fix my inward disposition to worry about changing the world out there. This is why the melancholic subject is perfectly suited to the reproduction of the status quo: they can never turn from them self to examine and challenge the material conditions in which they are located. Rather, all of their suffering arrives with a readymade explanation that they themselves are the cause.


Mourning at The Other Arts Tutorial

So what else? If not melancholia, what? Again, I think Freud is helpful. His understanding is that mourning is the non-pathological, preferred reaction to the loss. In mourning, reality testing reveals that the love object is indeed lost and so the need arises to sever one’s bond to that object. Freud admits that this is no easy task; it requires a period of absorption, where the subject experiences the same “painful mood” and “loss of interest in the outside world” as in melancholia. However, the crucial difference is that the subject of mourning emerges from this without having displaced the loss onto her own ego.

Freud proposes economic language for clarity, yet it is not without problem. A big problem for me is that Freud assumes that something loved and lost should be given up on altogether and ‘substituted’ with another. In my case this would mean relinquishing my desire for the second university entirely. There is a conservatism in Freud’s thought which sits uncomfortably – can we not lose something but go on loving it, hoping for it?

A more contemporary theorist Seth Moglen is helpful here. Moglen advocates a process of mourning where longings are retained, while the reality of the loss is also contended with. In my case, this would mean acknowledging my current experience of neoliberal education as loss, fully mourning and letting go of this particular experience while retaining hope that an education more akin to the second university may be realisable in the future. This requires a certain flexibility; I must be flexible about the ways in which my hope might fulfilled, rather than seeing this particular loss as the loss of the abstraction in its entirety. This also requires that I situate my loss in time and space: the second university is lost here and now, not forever and always. Once loss is situated, the connection between mourning and politics opens up. If my loss is situated I can ask concrete questions about the conditions which facilitated my loss and begin to explore how those conditions might need to change in order to prevent future losses.

For me, the Anglican Chaplaincy at Victoria University exists as a space of this sort of mourning. A sort of mourning which is looking for a language different to that of the Wellbeing campaign. The process of finding an alternative language can be painful, partly because it usually involves having one’s accepted language challenged. This is the unsettling aspect of mourning – in mourning we are undone; we undergo a transformation for which the results cannot be known in advance. The Chaplaincy is involved in such a process of undoing, through challenging the way the university understands and speaks about itself. It does this is through hosting Short Course Intensives annually. These Intensives take the form of a weekend long conference, open to the public. They seek to contextualise the contemporary university, tracing its history and describing its other moments, with special attention given to questions of knowledge and ways in which the academy might be antagonistic towards the Christian tradition. The weekends often do not seek to provide a solution, but rather to sit in the undone space for a time, taking stock of the particular university context that we work within in. It is through these Intensives that my sense of loss has been situated and related to the prevailing conditions that have at other times between otherwise.

Situating loss is only part of the work of mourning. The difficult work of retaining hope remains. Within the Chaplaincy there are avenues open to students for exploring how truncated longings might begin to flourish. For example, the Chaplaincy runs The Other Arts Tutorial. The idea behind The Other Arts Tutorial is to provide what many students hoped a humanities tutorial would be, yet often struggle to find: a place for thoughtful discussion about things that matter. Through The Other Arts Tutorial, the Chaplaincy provides a space to work towards realising my desire for the second university it in another way. In Moglen’s terms, I have accepted the idea of flexibility; although my sense of loss is not rectified by substantial changes to the university, my longing is partially realised within a different institution in a way I could not have predicted.

Poster for the Other Arts tutorial

The combination of the Short Course Intensives and The Other Arts Tutorial – along with others events – provides a space where an alternative language to that of the Wellbeing campaign can be worked out; a language deeply engaged in historicising the moment in which I find myself attending university. The outward orientation of such an engagement holds melancholia at bay. If I understand the way the university changes, I can begin to assess what different periods excelled at and what they lacked, and what I like and what do not like – I can begin assessing how different universities might affect me, including the one that I am in. Furthermore, I can begin taking steps to bring about the sort university I desire. Importantly, in this language community the accent is no longer on my subjectivity, as in the Wellbeing campaign, rather it is on the objective conditions I am located within. In mourning, my loss can be a political resource.

It has not been my intention to convert my reader to Victoria’s Anglican Chaplaincy. There are likely other spaces of mourning, that I am unaware of, yet which are equally worthy of the lengthy treatment I have given the Chaplaincy. However, it has, in a sense, been my aim to convert the melancholic to a process of politically engaged mourning. Or, at the very least, to justify why and how my own conversion from melancholy to mourning has taken place. And it is my (ambitious) hope that some of this may help to shift our attention from a twisted inwardness to what’s going on all around us.


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