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“What do you do all day?”: a case for the arts in the neoliberal university

by Orlaith Darling

There is a short story by Trinity alumnus Nicole Flattery that I absolutely adore. “Abortion, A Love Story” is taken from her 2019 debut collection, Show Them a Good Time, and centres on two female students at Trinity College Dublin, Natasha and Lucy. Throughout the story, Flattery pulls no punches in asking hard questions about what the university – about what the arts and humanities – are for.

Both are disenfranchised with college. While Lucy spends most of her time trying to participate in the glittering world of consumption outside the university – perusing and shoplifting in glamorous department stores – Natasha doesn’t even know what subject she is meant to be studying or, indeed, why she’s there:

“The structure was a mystery to her. Most days, out of curiosity, she ventured up and peered inside at the productive people busying themselves around the printing station. Often she imagined herself walking into the computer house, opening a document, putting words on that document, deliberate, incisive words about the subject she was studying. Then, standing at the printing station, with complete attentiveness, waiting for her document. With the best of intentions, she stood outside and thought about going inside. […] She was sick of the cleanliness of the college, the neat angles, the smooth walls of the buildings, the gates that slammed shut. She saw the professor’s pristine bedroom as an extension of the college. She was sick of reason and order; she wanted filth and chaos.”

As researchers in the arts and humanities, we are often asked to describe or explain – sometimes even to justify – what we do. It is no coincidence that one of the rising metrics of academic impact is “public engagement.” How do we break out of the ivory tower of the university? Why does what we do matter? How can we let people know that it matters? How can we bring the public into these conversations? This is often a ruse for asking why we deserve resources, time and money.

I recently went on a long walk with my dad, an IT manager, when I was home over lockdown. He’s always been the type of dad to tell his children that they are capable of doing whatever they want – like many a good parent, he thinks his children can change the world. As committed as he is to this conviction, he is, however, slightly confused as to how I intend to do this through writing a PhD thesis on representations of neoliberalism in contemporary Irish women’s short fiction. He had seen changing the world taking the route of government, Google, NGOs. Failing that, maybe a nice, legible job in sales or some other area that would use the widely accoladed and ill-defined “transferable skills” of a BA and MSc in literature.

But to me, literature (and other forms of art) provide two services which are of the utmost importance to society.

Reading a science fiction novel might not seem like engaging with the world around you, but it is: science fiction often distils societal anxieties about change that is already in motion, drawing our attention to a future which is not so much imagined as en route. What will society look like if we continue this way versus what could the future look like pending intervention? It is, for instance, no coincidence that much recent science fiction focuses on Artificial Intelligence or the climate – two issues of pressing ethical and physical concern in contemporary society.

Reading a work of historical fiction seems like a journey to a past we have left behind, but it’s not: on the most basic level, the narrativisation of the past and its organisation into conflict and resolution for the purpose of a novel tells us about civic rights, the formation of ideas about what it means to be human, both collectively and alone. More than that, though, historical fiction often refracts concerns about the present through the mirror of the past. It reminds us that we may think we have progressed, but that the same systems abound now as then; it reminds us that the past – in both the sense of national, societal or personal memory and in the sense of history as a series of confrontations between power structures – is not a bracketed, closed-off phenomenon. I find myself drawn more and more to this genre to conceptualise, for instance, what it means to live in a “late” era – “late capitalism,” for instance, “post-feminism,” “post-postmodernism” or, indeed, the last throes of a planet on fire.

There is an old cliché: “reading makes us more compassionate.” It’s something of a hackneyed formulation, and I remain unconvinced that it is not totally patronising. The point, for me, is not whether reading makes you more empathetic as an individual; you are not the point at all. The point is how literature makes society more see-able, its structuring principles more digestible, its value systems more transparent. What I mean to get at, then, is that literature – and more broadly the arts and humanities – engage with society and encourage us to do the same. They take something from society, reframe it through genre, form, characterisation or any number of techniques, and hand it back to us. They provide a vehicle to gain critical distance from the society in which we live: a distance which then opens up the ability to critique, to contextualise, to put things on a continuum, to complicate.

Forgive me if this seems a stretch. But I sometimes conceive of even the most obscure genre fiction as Reese Witherspoon’s “bend, and snap” as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Stay with me here: reading can bend you away from the material contingency of the here and now, it can distance you from your immediate environment by plunging you into imagined worlds or the head of a character who is not you.

But there is always the “snap:” the movement by which we arrive back, with deconstructed, probed and reformed ideas on the structures of our world.

This dual process of defamiliarisation and distillation is crucial to the development of mindful social rubrics, in fostering awareness of how we live now, and why.

Let’s consider a question. Can we say that homelessness is not a violence? What if it is the result of successive decades of policy which calcifies social exclusion and poverty wages, as well as a deregulated housing market? Can policy be a ritualised form of aggression against specified persons or groups? Is there such a thing as “ideological violence” and, if so, what might it look like? Can this ritualised, ideological aggression have physical consequences for these persons or groups? Capitalism is not, by definition, an act of violence: but that’s why the arts, narrative and representation are there to defamiliarise definitions, and to challenge and critique them.

Another question that I come back to time and again in my particular line of research is this: What does it mean to live in a neoliberal society?

To an economist, neoliberalism is a type of governance which advocates a free market, the unencumbered flow of international finance and the minimising of state interference.

To me, it means that we are fed a narrative of free will, choice and autonomy but that our actions are constrained and foreclosed by an unseen system. It means that people are held responsible for their own conditions and circumstances – it means that someone in a bad circumstance is thought to be there by dint of some kind of choice they made, or by some kind of internal failure. It means that, although we value gender equality, there remains a stubborn pay gap because we value corporate freedom more and we do not value the unpaid work still predominantly performed by women; it means that we see “Girl Bosses” as the end goal of feminism as a liberation movement. It means that the only freedom is the market, and that access to this freedom is predicated on purchasing power. It means that we have internalised this conditional, caveated version of “freedom” as the norm so as not to find it problematic. It means that we all live in conditions of “lateness” – of a severed future and lack of trajectory, whether that be in home ownership, career development or retirement provision. It means that we are all human capital rather than people, fleshy assets impressed with the need to optimise all areas of our life and to be enterprising every waking moment. It means that rising levels of depression and anxiety, all rooted in the precarity of the contemporary, are internalised as personal flaws.

Neoliberalism means that universities across Ireland are in thrall to a gargantuan funding crisis, with more and more unpaid work outsourced to postgraduates and less and less public funding expected to go further and further. It means that subjects and disciplines whose entire existence is not predicated on making money are treated with distrust and shut down (as is increasingly the case for literature departments in UK universities) while those subjects which are about “innovation” (making money) are privileged. It means that no one really knows what “innovation” even means, but that hashing it out is not the point.

If this is the theory and the critique, literature – the short stories I analyse – puts human faces on neoliberalism: on how it is embodied, on how it infiltrates the very foundations of the houses we live in and transforms our idea of what a home is and who should have one, on what a city is and who should live in one, on what a capitalist “future” might look like, and who has a future under capitalism. It also puts narrative on these faces, elevating them above anonymised figures in a study and making them humans sketched from life into a story, characters with backgrounds and presents and futures and contexts and structurally-inflicted wounds and personal foibles.

If neoliberalism means that we are held responsible for every situation in which we might find ourselves, it means that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is an expectation, not a joke on the basis of its logistical impossibility.

It means that the college professor’s advice to Natasha, “You have to rise above your circumstances,” is imbued with a real urgency – if you do not rise, you will fall, and no one will  help you down there.

Thus, it means that when Lucy says, “Welcome to the good life,” she is necessarily being ironic. But it also means that, as a society, we have lost the ability to be ironic – irony is, after all, only available to those who are not at once standing in their boots and diligently pulling at the straps… And then bending down to lick the boots.

If neoliberalism, as I mentioned, poses a fundamental threat to the arts and humanities at university level, it means that we, as a society, see education as a money-maker and no more.

It means that society is separated into two categories, as outlined by Natasha in “Abortion, A Love Story:” those for whom “the unemployment building hung like a threat… where their immune systems would be lowered and threatened by ancient illnesses,” and those who leave college “for the outside world with confidence, heading for financial institutions, their family businesses.”

So, what value is the university meant to offer to society and what is the place of the arts within that offering?

Defamiliarisation and distillation of complex issues? Understanding of entrenched power structures, and a means to challenge them? Humanisation of statistics?

“I’m not sure.” Lucy says at the end of “Abortion, A Love Story.” “I don’t know if I get it.”

As a catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” won hearts, minds, and elections. As a concept, it has won the battle for the status quo both within the university and beyond. We live by the (un)official mantra: if it makes money, it’s a goer.

But I want to propose something radical.

Instead of the irksome misreading of “interdisciplinarity,” wherein the tacit understanding is that the arts and humanities are leeching on other, more legitimate disciplines and stealing the money they should, by rights, be allocated, let’s reverse the equation.

Let’s make “interdisciplinarity” truly interdisciplinary.

Let’s use our finely honed tools of criticism not to nervously justify ourselves, but to ask of others the questions they’re seldom asked.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

I don’t know if I get it.

Tell me, why should research generate €X in GDP? Tell me, where does that money come from and where does it go? What are the knock-on effects of its profit-generation? Tell me, just because we can create AI, does that mean we should? Tell me, what is the public good of a multi-billion-euro silicon dock innovation disruptor canal tech bubble dot com hub inc.? Tell me, what exactly is “Business”? Is it ethical to hire people to limit corporate or personal tax liability? Tell me, this computer code, how can we be sure that it’s not just a reinvention of the wheel, not just a UX update atop the same old baked-in inequalities? How can we be sure that this research is progressive and transformative, not just newly conservative? Tell me, what aspects of society – as you see it – will be enhanced by this research, and which aspects will be challenged? What is the money-making methodology of this project and have you reported to an ethics committee?

Tell me, if this project requires public money and a university, how will it benefit the public? Not “engage” with them as though it was an entertainer at a children’s birthday party, not generate GDP (after all, this is no measure of public welfare) – how will it change society for the better?

Or is that actually what these disciplines are for? And, if not, what are they for? And, when we understand what it is that you do and when we are on the same page, how can we, in the arts and humanities, work with you to marry our approaches and aims and to temper each other’s worst excesses?

The arts may be an imperfect science. But humans are also imperfect. And we are all human.


Orlaith Darling is a PhD candidate in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where she researches representations of neoliberalism in contemporary Irish women’s short fiction. She also holds an MSc from the University of Edinburgh and a BA from Trinity College Dublin, where she was elected Scholar in 2016. She is co-founder of the Contemporary Irish Literature Research Network (CIL) and outgoing co-convenor of the School of English Staff-Postgraduate Seminar Series. She is currently based in Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute and her research is funded by the Irish Research Council.

She tweets @darling_orlaith

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