Counting and Accountability: Collaboration in and Against the Neoliberal University

by Carrie Smith (University of Alberta) and Maria Stehle (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

In our 2016 book Awkward Politics, we write about what collaboration can or might do within, or to, the academy. We write of its subversive and revolutionary quality, of its ability to push back against assessment mechanisms of the university and against the theoretical canon at the foundation of the humanities. Further, we speak at length about our own collaborative relationship that grew from tentative dates via email to long chats on Skype, tracing its origins in a shared sense of academic and feminist political urgency, but also in a mutual understanding that the tools of our discipline, German Studies, should not onlyuse, but must also dotheory in a broad sense. Doing theory can only have meaning when the resulting thinking reaches well beyond the object or subject analyzed, beyond the pages of the book, the frames of the film, the pixels of the video; when that theory has social and political value. Throughout our collaboration, the personal nature of our relationship was bound up in our intellectual and political commitment to feminisms. As Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman write in the preface to their conversation in Sex, or the Unbearable: “our own conversation includes and exceeds us at once” (x). While our thoughts in that book are at times utopian, at their very core lies an understanding that for theory to be written, read, and mobilized as social practice (Berlant and Edelman), the work must be collaborative in conception and execution. 

Thus, there is an urgency to collaboration as social process and our responsibilities to and for each other; Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life after Capitalism, “without collaboration, we all die” (28). Collaboration, thus, is also about accountability: to each other and to the worlds around us. In the context of the neoliberal university, it is also about counting: what counts as whose publication? How much does collaboration count?

Our shared collaborative history does not read revolutionary. We have been collaborators on a range of projects, from grant writing (SSHRC Insight Grant from Canada), the co-written book, a co-edited volume on digital feminism, articles, talks, roundtables, workshops, and the Digital Feminist Collective—the website/open-access publication project, which we manage together with others and on which this piece appears; indeed, central to our collaboration are the constellations we form with others, at times joining teams in partnership, at times separating to join others in different collaborations. We are both in tenured positions; while we started to work on the grant together before we had tenure, we both already had a first, single-authored monograph in publication. We had something that, unquestionably, would count for tenure. We also both had very young children at the time we started our collaboration; these children, too, have grown with and within our work. As we cared for others, we also continued to feel accountable to each other for doing the intellectual work we had committed to doing. Sometimes, writing felt like another task on a long list of things to do, but most of the time, our intellectual collaborations sustained us.

Each collaboration has a different cycle and tempo and connects across different time zones; as we write, discuss, and research, we become differently bound to disciplinary and institutional regimes. When we are in the thick of writing, we often chat with each other throughout the day. Carrie might be at the grocery store or swimming lessons, but she is also working through a particularly complicated passage with Maria, who is snatching moments of writing between teaching. Mobile technology offers the height of neoliberal availability, even in a collaboration intended to question neoliberal cooption. In crafting this collaborative articlewith Hester Baer, we recognized this conundrum and inserted screenshots of our three-way chats into the article to show how, at particular times when writing about the video works of Afro-German artist Noah Sow, we might also be having a conversation together about diapers or the weather or our institutional woes. We write about this directly in the piece itself, which we excerpt at length here: 

Our attempt to conserve the process of collaboration is a fib. We selected just a few of the many comment bubbles we generated while writing this essay and inserted them back into the document after we had discussed, addressed, and deleted them. The process of collaboration is a temporal process that can be traced and collected, but not easily captured and certainly not frozen onto a single screen. During our writing process, we had various digital channels of communication to exchange ideas, coordinate writing, complain about distractions, and discuss delays. Our process of writing thus also offers a perspective on speed in the 24/7 regime: while, in many ways, the work of three minds outpaced our individual thinking, the process itself was slower than we anticipated. The rapid changes as three of us write, edit each other’s words, delete paragraphs, and change arguments are disorienting at times and such disorientation is, of course, utterly unproductive in the most specific sense of labor market productivity now central to academic assessment structures. Essentially, we found ourselves producing while also working within an impasse, a feminist bind to which we, too, attempted our own aesthetic reorientation. In the face of neoliberalism and the neoliberal academy, we tried joyfully to embrace these moments of unproductive disorientation and turn them on their heads, shaping them into what counts as something productive for us, as academics: an article. Further, since moments of utter confusion are part of almost any such process of academic writing, we could much more easily confront this confusion because we were in it together; different forms of collaboration and community offer ways to work within the impasse. (21–22)

This honest response is good. It gets at the amorphous quality of the process of collaboration, created of multiple fleeting moments of connection and disconnect and at the confusing way in which we needed the neoliberal problem of impasse in order to work within and beyond it. But what it doesn’t address is that by collaborating in the way that we do, we are also always on, always productive, at least seemingly. If feminism has become increasingly popular over the past two years, fueled by the rise of the fascist right, it has also become coopted and sold for popular consumption. Collaboration, too, has risen in popularity throughout a variety of institutional settings. Must we work against structures of neoliberalism in feminist collaboration? Or is there a way of working with and within such structures productively? Is feminist collaboration itself being coopted as a mode of fulfilling expectations, albeit an alternative one? Is this cooption necessarily a problem? In a lecture on 9 March 2017at the University of Alberta, Sirma Bilge cautioned against utilizing the term cooptionwhen speaking of feminism, for it is predicated on an assumption of an initial purity of feminism. Similarly, Tsing writes in Mushroom at the Endof the World, “everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option” (27). While categorically denouncing neoliberalism and its cooption of “feminism,” white feminism in the academy perpetuates the hegemony of whiteness, for example, by institutionally capitalizing on—and coopting—intersectionality often in ways that do not value race. This concern can be expanded to other cooptions internal to feminist and queer activist struggles that subsume differences into hegemonic structures in popular or political arenas alike. Critically and carefully thinking through mechanisms of such cycles of cooption opens avenues into understanding the possibilities for creative forms of resistance, also in the academy.

Collaboration is a form of assemblage, a way to (re)gain “our ability to notice the divergent, layered, and conjoined projects that make up worlds” (Tsing 22). Our argument is that collaborations in and with the academy must replicate this process of becoming and coming into politics in the same manner. Even if collaboration replicates in many ways the rigid structures of the academy it pushes against, it also necessarily works against linear structures of time and output. In her forthcoming monograph How to Make Art at the End of the World, Natalie Loveless writes about the world-making power of stories (stories thought of as research questions) as a political capacity and argues for new disciplinary paths and collaborative kinships to challenge fields, discourses, and assessment categories; thinking with Loveless, can we consider our collaborative practices one such kinship, itself rewriting discursive fields in order to walk a new path that tells a different political story? Our collaborations are forms of contamination. When thought in this manner, collaboration messes with the structure of things, messing with the “it has always been done that way” adage not merely to offer a new dominant structure, for there is no politics in offering a new status quo, but rather to open up all of our insular practices—the disinfected and hermetically sealed borders of our academic spheres of influence—to chance, to infection, to contamination. As Tsing writes, “we are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others” (27). Contamination becomes a way of rendering the walls between our silos porous. At the same time, the process is scary, for it suggests the potential of disfigurement, destruction, and possible death of the very disciplines and structures on which our academic identity (or at least our history and training) is founded and which effects how we nurture future generations of thinkers and researchers in undergraduate and graduate student cohorts. If contamination must necessarily lead to such impact, then it also offers a way of thinking about what happens then, after disfigurement, destruction, and death. 

So: “how to think collaborative survival” (Tsing 19) within the neoliberal academy? Survival means that we believe in a future that takes into account the mechanisms that place that very future at risk. Said differently, the danger that feminist collaboration will become a meaningless, neoliberally-driven mode for increasing productive outcomes and neoliberal marketability is always a part of our research practices; collaboration itself is one of the elements of contamination, a contamination that drives possible futures. Collaboration offers a way of reading that emphasizes process, craft, and creation, one that maintains awareness of circularity and contradictions; it is political engagement andcreative work as theory and practice combined. Collaborating, thus, means to always be responsive and in flux, making visible the often-cruel mechanisms of neoliberal capitalism, racism, and sexism not in a corrective manner, but instead by exposing their contradictions and by disrupting, by contaminating them. 

If we think of collaboration as an open process of contamination, against containment and purity, we become hard to assess and evaluate since “without self-contained units, it is impossible to compute costs or benefits, or functionality, to any ‘one’ involved” (Tsing 34). Counting becomes a slippery process. For example, when we collaborate, who claims what or which parts? Our book, since we co-wrote it, “counts twice” and is claimed twice—or does it only count half, 50% dangling in each institutional setting? The answer to these questions is also contextual: the way Carrie’s work counts for the processes of evaluation at her university might not line up with Maria’s at her institution; the different manner in which we count further impacts our ability to engage with the structures beyond our individual institutions. Open access and web publications, for example the website on which we are publishing this piece, multiply, cross-contaminate; or are they deemed worthless contaminants, not counting at all, but continuing to exist, grow, invade, and hold accountable? When we think within the matrix of the neoliberal university and the obsession with quantifiable achievements and data, the contamination offered by collaboration might force us to stop emphasizing countability and instead accountability, and through accountability, amplification. When we collaborate, we can inflate and multiply things as a way to subvert quantifications. The algorithms of collaboration perform amplification as accountability.

Works Cited

Baer, Hester, Carrie Smith-Prei, and Maria Stehle. “Digital Feminisms and the Impasse: Time, Disappearance, and Delay in Neoliberalism,” special issue of Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature24/7: Neoliberalism and the Undoing of Time, ed. by Necia Chronister and Lutz Koepnick, 40.2 (2016). 

Berlant, Lauren and Lee Edelman. Sex, or the Unbearable. Duke UP, 2013.

Bilge, Sirma. 2017. “Neoliberalism, Intersectionality & Feminism: Dissenting Knowledges in Researchand Teaching.” Vimeo, March 9.

Loveless, Natalie. How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation. Duke UP, forthcoming (2019).

Smith-Prei, Carrie and Maria Stehle. Awkward Politics: Technologies of Popfeminist Activism. McGill-Queens UP, 2016.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life after Capitalism. Princeton UP, 2015.