Art, Critique, and Superfluousness: The Psychic Violence of the Optimized Academy

By Zach Kaiser, MSU assistant professor

This (admittedly speculative) post deals with some of the intrinsic conflicts that come with participating in academia with the belief that one is helping make the world a better place — which is one reason that many of us come to academia. Some faculty understand that all is not as it seems, despite our best intentions, and, quite often, despite our best efforts. In light of the ongoing austerity measures hampering public higher education and the quest for optimization in which universities and their faculties are increasingly engaged, I hope to examine the affective dimension of this conflict and its impact on our actions as scholars, teachers, and citizens of the world. This post is written from the perspective of an academic working in the arts and humanities at a research institution, and certainly won’t be representative of the broad and diverse collective of disciplines, interests, and institutional situations that can be found across academia today. Nonetheless, I hope it resonates with some of my readers.


“‘Consider all those brilliant youngsters who loved school, studied hard and went off in the highest spirits to college or university, thinking there was a world out there that would welcome them, encourage and support them in their learning, give them jobs as scholars and teachers. That world started snapping shut in the 1980s and has gone on getting smaller and smaller, meaner and meaner, closer and closer to shutting down completely.’ [Mark] Fisher seems to be describing a feeling of superfluousness; these young people, like the superfluous men of Russia in the 19th century, were being educated for jobs that no longer existed. Superfluous: ‘the experience of modern masses’ as described by Hannah Arendt.” Jenny Turner’s review of Mark Fisher’s k-punk in the London Review of Books

“I suggest that notwithstanding the few good things that do emerge from such conferences, our pretensions for them are bullshit. We know this, and appear to care very little.” Brian Smith, “Conceptual Design: A Polemic,” from the proceedings of the Design for Need conference, 1976


Academic institutions today are under constant pressure to optimize themselves, to demonstrate an increasing return-on-investment both to parents and to the austerity state. As I have argued elsewhere, in a climate of “capitalist realism” (a term borrowed from Mark Fisher) in which capitalism seems to be the only realistic political-economic system and the consequences of our surrender to this logic are sometimes barely perceptible, a vicious cycle of increasing productivity and increasingly granular assessment of that productivity driven by the financial logic of the academic-industrial-state apparatus pushes scholars towards a machinic efficiency.

An emphasis (whether spoken or unspoken) on optimization positions faculty, students, administrators, and whole institutions as information processors. A whole history (analyzed in depth by a dizzying variety of scholars in disciplines such as science and technology studies, the history of economics, and bibliometrics/scholarly communication) of events and ideas, paired with political-economic conditions and scientific innovations, led to approaching humanity and specifically the academy in this way. Spurred in the 1950s by early cybernetics research as well as the movement of economists into all areas of society as “experts” in “information,”[1] views of all aspects of faculty activity, from “impact” to communication became understood as information processing, inflected with the understanding that, as such, they may work similarly to the market — itself the ultimate information processing system.

Once we see everything as an information-processing system that should be designed specifically to provide “value” in the form of a return-on-investment for the university, its public and private funders, as well as its students, the imperative to optimize this information processing system looms large. To demonstrate this return-on-investment, academic institutions (and individual academics) must optimize for something, and that something is the metrics by which they are judged both by state administrators, parents, and peer institutions alike. Institutions themselves participate in the production of these metrics, sometimes even in an attempt to shift the terms on which they are judged. Mostly, however, the metrification of the university is an attempt to utilize advanced computational-surveillance technologies to evaluate “productivity” and “impact” in the service of demonstrating superiority in various ranking systems such that limited funding might become slightly more easy to come by.

We, the faculty and staff subjected to these surveillance-metrification systems, remake ourselves in the image of the ways we are measured, partly because we are incentivized to do so. And it’s difficult to disagree, especially when, as academics, we’ve been given the rare opportunity to do our “life’s work.” As Ian Hacking writes, remaking oneself in the image of that which measures that self is one consequence of “making up people.” And this remaking of the self has tremendous consequences.

Riyad Shahjahan writes that, in today’s academy, the performance-based metrics and the increasingly granular time frames within which they operate “form a collective dominant temporality mirror through which academics make meaning, articulate time, and experience time…  This temporality mirror acts as the ‘Other’ gaze governing academic/personal lives which perpetuates shame logics for many” (Shahjahan 2019, 5). When we live “for others” in the sense in which Shahjahan writes, meaning living for the eyes of the “others” who judge and/or evaluate us (these others often being computational metrics systems), the feeling of superfluousness is always lurking. For if we truly live “for others,” serving others and the world regardless of how it positions us within our systems of evaluation, we are rendered superfluous in the eyes of the “others” who count (literally and figuratively). Shahjahan suggests that the predominant effect that emerges from this state of being for others (those who judge/assess us, including metrics systems and the technocratic administrators who interpret them) is shame. Indeed, this is a compelling reading of the situation in which we find ourselves and the rich body of literature on which Shahjahan draws certainly supports this interpretation. I would like to offer that a component of the shameful feelings we adopt is, in part, due to the tearing apart of oneself that, if we acknowledge it, is part of an inherent contradiction in the academy, an attempt to mitigate superfluousness on both sides of our academic life — the side that knows the work we do to maintain our prominence and keep our jobs might actually be superfluous to the dire situations at hand, and the side that knows that to do the things those dire situations really require would be to maybe render our work superfluous to the systems of assessment to which we are beholden. The connection between affect and action, between the institutional and economic hegemony, the “being for others” in Shahjahan’s terms, and the interiority of ourselves becomes strained to the point of breaking.

In Jana Bacevic’s recent article on the social epistemology of neoliberalism, she points out quite clearly how approaching neoliberalism as an object of knowledge has also sought to situate the production of that knowledge outside the system of neoliberalism itself, which is, of course, impossible. In fact, the industry of producing knowledge about — and critiquing — neoliberalism, has become robust, and itself functions within the image of neoliberalism, inscribed as it is within the capitalist-realist academic structures to which all of us are beholden. Critiquing the dominant systems that marginalize people and destroy the planet has become something of a boon to academics working within the systems that they critique, while this marginalization and destruction marches on.

But doing critique has its practical advantages, especially within the capitalist-realist academy, in which institutions are seeking to achieve the best return-on-investment by subjecting every aspect of faculty activity to an arsenal of ever-more granular metrics. Writing a thoughtful, critical journal article that sheds some additional light on a tiny aspect of the massive problems we already know we have, which then appears in a top-tier journal with a high impact factor that gets a significant number of downloads and is shared widely on social media, will be viewed favorably by the metrics-interpreting administrators that control our salaries. On top of that, we can feel proud that we’re “fighting the good fight,” circulating retweets with other similarly politically-aligned academics. We can rationalize our quest for efficiency and productivity by pointing to the content of the work. It is impossible for the work, regardless of its radical content, to sit outside the systems it is critiquing (e.g., neoliberalism), as Bacevic demonstrates, but the illusion helps us maintain our sanity, or at least keep our jobs.

Without a rationale that leans on efficiency, productivity, and optimization as its basis — even if our work itself might advocate for something different — our activities seem untethered, absurd, or superfluous. And when the work we produce is tied to our own individual identities, it becomes difficult not to also identify any aspect of the self that is not optimization-seeking as similarly superfluous.

Even organizations and institutions dedicated to “helping” faculty navigate this need to self-optimize in the face of increasing demands and increasingly granular assessment of the meeting of those demands are themselves guilty of absorbing the capitalist-realist ideology of self-optimization. They often seek to help faculty manage the difficulty of the situation in which they find themselves, not necessarily to actively change it. The Faculty Success Program, for example, “is all about learning the secrets to increasing your research productivity, getting control of your time, and living a full and healthy life beyond your campus.” In essence, it is about mitigating the effects of  — or adapting to — an unsustainable system, not changing the system itself. It exists to help many of us, especially those who are doing work that we believe is important, critical, and urgent, maintain the illusion that our work is not superfluous.

This isn’t to say, however, that many academics who participate in FSP are not also activists who are actually doing the work and truly fighting the good fight. I met a number of people while participating in FSP over the last few years who are working towards a better world by engaging in direct action, regardless of what their research is about. They have been a constant source of inspiration for me. These folks also tend to be the ones taking on the most service and informal-advising duties at their universities, become burnt-out faster and at a higher rate, and are, as research shows, are more frequently women, people of color, and from marginalized communities.[2]

The ability to navigate our current, and precarious terrain, as the Faculty Success Program demonstrates, is important. But without a broader and more radical agenda, those of us who achieve some modicum of “success” must face a difficult decision about how to continue working within the systems of which we have availed ourselves, but which we also acknowledge are complicit in the ongoing political-economic and environmental debacles that characterize the anthropocene.


If we understand that doing the “real” work might itself be superfluous according to the metrics by which we are judged (just ask anyone with an undue service burden), isn’t the very act of critique also superfluous if we know we need to destroy neoliberalism or and completely change the way we live? Why make art or write thousands upon thousands of words about it? So instead of feeling superfluous because we are not optimizing ourselves, our acts of self-optimization in an effort to be successful take on a superfluous character as well.[3] This is especially the case for artistic and design practice today, and is a tension I feel with an increasing strength every passing day as someone who makes art about the politics of technology and also teaches “user-experience design.” (Who are these “users?” Are they the children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo mining the minerals that go into the electronics in the mobile devices we use? Are they the children working long nights in China to build Amazon Alexa devices?).

I have begun to think that some artistic practice that critiques techno-neoliberalism, points towards some kind of trans-species communion, or advocates a new materialist/post-anthropogenic philosophical point of view, is, for the most part, superfluous. Gabi Schaffzin and I witnessed many such works in our 2017 trip to the International Symposium on Electronic Art. He wrote about this trip in a post for Cyborgology:

The 23rd International Symposium on Electronic Art was held in collaboration with the 16th Festival Internacional De La Imagen in Manizales, Colombia in mid-June 2017. The opening ceremony for the conference kicked off with a performance by the artist Jaime Del Val, entitled METATOPIA 4.0 – Algoricene (2017), described by the artist as “a nomadic, interactive and performative environment for outdoors and indoors spaces.” The artist statement goes on (and on) to explain that the piece “merges dynamic physical and digital architectures” in an effort to “def[y] prediction and control in the Big Data Era.” In actuality, Del Val stripped down to his naked body, put himself in a clear mesh tent, projected abstract shapes onto the tent, and danced to what might best be called abstract electronica (think dubstep’s “wubwubwub” without the pop).

Call me cynical, but when glaciers are melting a hundred times faster than scientists originally thought, artistic projects like “METATOPIA” are not doing anybody any good. We are on the precipice of climate disaster, but the use of technologies such as deep learning is en vogue in the (critically-oriented) visual arts despite the recent evidence of the detrimental environmental impacts of sophisticated Machine Learning and AI systems. But are the things I make or write any different? When using art and scholarship to critique and illuminate the problems plaguing our world is “profitable” for my career, why not do it if I believe it can serve both my own interests and the interests of society? Is that belief, however, more of an illusion?

“So it is,” writes Su Braden, “that most bourgeois art has little meaning for the working class and vice versa.” [4]

The ambivalence I described above, this dual-superfluousness if you will, is reflected in discourses of art and design that go back more than half a century. In the proceedings for the “Design for Need” symposium (1976), Su Braden writes that:

The fact that art and design are seen as divorced from the means of production, introduces the kind of alienation in the West which isolates artistic expression in the commercial galleries, theatres and concert halls and design in chic drawing offices — rendering both socially powerless.[5]


My ambivalence around critique as a practice in the university is not a neoconservative argument against the research functions of the university or against the liberal arts in favor of STEM and other fields that can be easily instrumentalized within neoliberalism. It is precisely the opposite. It is to say that even those fields which we might regard as “non-utilitarian,” such as the visual arts, are co-opted and utilized by the system, reintegrated into its logic in ways we wouldn’t expect or didn’t intend to begin with. Because of the logic-inertia of the system, this is then an argument for a total refusal of the optimization logic of the university in the austerity state. Instead of making it seem like there’s no place for contemporary art as such or for the development of an analysis of hegemonic forces that one should seek to resist (e.g., neoliberalism), I mean to suggest that art and critique can serve the world in a different way.

When I see projects like METATOPIA or open my twitter feed to see brilliant but somehow empty critiques of neoliberalism, I’m inclined to scream “JUST STOP ALREADY.” What would it look like to STOP? To stop the process of molding ourselves in the images of our assessments? To stop making work that subdues the superfluousness we feel but never quite extinguishes it? Would we stop making art altogether? Or stop doing critical scholarship? Or would contemporary art and design, critical theory and humanistic critique, just look different? In 1976, Brian Smith suggested what this might look like for designers, who, when “conferences are a con” and “reform is retrograde,” should “stop designing — at least under the present terms of reference,” and instead become “theorists and activists, according to skill and inclination.” Even the term “theorist” takes on a particular action-orientation for Smith, who specifies that these are “theorists for cultural revolution” who would design “concepts” and “incorporate them into systems that will enable the most effective implementation of solutions to problems, in ways that are completely open to people for their own use in solving other problems.” [6]

I support Smith’s conclusion and wonder if it could be broadened to include additional members of the academy as well, as suggested by Arturo Escobar in Designs for the Pluriverse, wherein he seeks to draw our attention to the connections between design and a diverse set of other design-adjacent fields: anthropology, digital studies, ecology, feminist theory, and political economy. Can humanistic inquiry, critical thought, art, and design come together to enable human flourishing? And can it happen under the auspices of academic work? How might we “stop academia” — at least “under the present terms of reference?”

A reconfiguration of the academy that resists the psychic violence of its optimization requires a different kind of “being for others,” a “politics of love” as my chairperson, Karin Zitzewitz puts it. This is a mode of operation that does not value optimization, or maybe optimizes for something else. It is to optimize for conviviality, self-determination, access, local autonomy, human dignity, and for a world that recognizes limits and embraces them, which privileges relationality over rationality. And it is to attempt to do these things both within and outside the university at the same time, with no regard for the artificial boundary between the two. These are the kinds of things that rankings don’t care about because to truly engage them would be to rely on one another in a kind of mutual interdependence that is anathema to the university bureaucracy that gives or denies tenure based on individual achievement, and which has taken advantage of contingent labor for much longer than Uber or Amazon ever has.

What does it look like to “enact” the critique that we describe in our writing? Or to put our art “in the streets?” We are reminded by Su Braden that Walter Benjamin made this plea his 1934 “The Author as Producer,” in which “he sets out the case for, in his instance, the writer is responsible not only for producing a work of literary merit but the social structure in which the work itself may be meaningfully read — taking responsibility for the distribution and dissemination of his ideas.” [7]

I think this is what makes the work of someone like Krzysztof Wodiczko so powerful. His work transcends the distinction between “art” and “design” which Braden argues is itself an invention of capitalism. Wodiczko’s projects aren’t intended for the gallery space — they were intended for people in the world. Art that works in the world might not even seem like “art.” And it might not look like what we today think of as “design,” either. I am again reminded of an organization to which I make frequent reference these days, the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute. Founded in 1968 with initial funding from Michigan State University, it was “[d]escribed as “an experimental community college” that provided free courses to Detroit residents in cartography, geography, community activism, and urban planning. The “counter-maps” produced by this coalition of academics and inner-city residents were urgent, angry indictments of a form of capitalism they called “interior colonialism.” By 1970, the Institute enrolled 500 students in 11 courses. But, as Ron Horvath wrote in 1970, “in the university world, including a state-supported institution like MSU, as in the business world, success is measured in terms of growth, and growth is measured in terms of money and not education dispensed.” And so it was that, in 1970, despite positive reception from universities across Michigan, funding for the project was terminated.

Regardless of what this truly critical praxis looks like, the documentation of the work and its afterlife must not be made to count, must not be easily integrated into the metrics by which we are judged, lest their production and documentation become yet another game that we academics seek to play. This isn’t to say that there are not academic organizations/projects beginning to do this work (e.g., MLA Humanities Commons, HASTAC, and others), but I worry about the potential for these initiatives to be overly committed to a reformist approach that privileges coping with optimization and superfluousness over outright and difficult change.

How can we square ourselves with the fact that we might not be rewarded for the work that truly needs to be done? For those of us in the privileged few (and fewer) positions of tenure-track or tenured professorships, this question is all the more urgent because by working towards a more just academy (and society) regardless of the consequences for our own careers, we might make a difference for the precarious faculty whose psychic and financial distress is significantly more urgent than our own.



[1] See Mirowski and Nik-Khah 2017

[2] See, for example, Guarino and Borden 2017, June 2015 and Swain 2019.

[3] This is a point on which I struggle with my conviction. I believe that some of the “art” and “thousands of words” I just referenced are acts of resistance against the kind of optimization in which I am incentivized to engage. Furthermore, as Henri Lefebvre argued, critique/negation opens up new possibilities. So it is that resistance may catalyze change, but I am unsure of precisely what that change is, and I worry now that resistance, especially from within sanctioned academic spaces, might not be enough to combat the logic-inertia of the system itself.

[4] Su Braden (1976), “The Artist As Producer,” Design for Need, p.79.

[5] Braden, p.80

[6] Brian Smith (1976), “Conceptual Design: A Polemic,” Design for Need, p.112.

[7] Braden, p.78


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