On the Materiality and Spirituality of Academic Work

By Rachel Signer

On the Materiality and Spirituality of Academic Work

What is the nature of academic “work”?  Why do we students dedicate so much time to reading, thinking, and writing?  Do we want to enrich our minds, actualize our selves, and develop our humanisms?  Or is it because everyone’s got to get a job one of these days?  You are probably laughing because we all know that none of these are entirely true.  After all, there are various ways to be “intellectual” and “actualized,” including working with children, helping marginalized peoples, teaching yoga and saving the whales.  Frankly, these also happen to be paying-jobs that can be incredibly rewarding and sustainable.  So what is it about academic “work” that we’re all so hyped up about?

It seems to me that, in the NSSR at least, there’s a kind of frenzy.  It’s as if a sense of urgency runs through us, reminding us that life is to be lived.  We also have overwhelmingly leftward-leaning political and moral perspectives.  This is a place for thinkers who are looking for both the spiritual and the material.  Spiritual, because we believe in ideas: their power, their tangible effects, their sensuality.  Material, because we want to see better living conditions for, generally speaking, those who don’t have them – including ourselves.  I know people at the New School who sacrifice comfort and leisure in the name of saving money; this is probably a reality for most of us.  We can only hope that one day our ideas will be worth something, to someone.

How did this situation occur, where people who believe so strongly in ideas have to be economically productive in order to survive?  You might be asking whether ideas are so important that they don’t have to work to support themselves, just like people who work service jobs or perform administrative tasks.  I am not saying that academics shouldn’t work or that we should float about like lazy bums.  All that I’m saying is, the kind of work we do as academics is clearly affected by material ambitions.  But in a different sort of way.

The modernity scholar Frederic Jameson was critical of notions of high culture, particularly of ones that purported elite theory to be less materially motivated than mass or middle-brow culture.  On the topic of “reification and utopia in mass culture,” Jameson asks in the first chapter of his book Signatures of the Visible whether the opposition of “high culture” to “mass culture” holds true when it is analyzed through the lens of value.  Applying a Marxian perspective of value to the study of artistic production, Jameson explicates the idea that commodified art is “reduced to a means for its own consumption” (11).  The concept of instrumentalization, a pragmatic end that justifies the means, reduces an aesthetic object from its “independent ‘being’” and leads the object down a dark path from “art” to “mass culture.”  Addressing the Frankfurt School’s position on mass culture as a devalued, commoditized art form, Jameson offers a critique against the “valorization of traditional modernist high art as the locus of some genuinely critical and subversive, ‘autonomous’ aesthetic production”.  Jameson asks us, in line with this argument, to reconsider the “opposition high culture/mass culture,” instead using a “genuinely historical and dialectical approach to these phenomena,” seeing mass and high culture forms as “objectively related and dialectically interdependent phenomena” (14).  In short, capitalism bestows the curses of commoditization on all forms of aesthetic production, and not even high culture is protected from this process of evaluation and subsequent devaluation.

Books, essays, courses taught, and lectures – embodiments of our labor – can be seen along this axis: the material-spiritual.  These objects are, in fact, mediators of knowledge, experience, and ideas.  Perhaps Jameson was correct, that as spiritual beings locked in a material world, everything that is produced is also destined for consumption.  The unique attribute of human labor is, indeed, its ability to be both spiritual and material at once.  I am not trying to argue that everything we do in academia is thus disenchanted and trapped in Weber’s Iron Cage.  On the contrary, materiality is a positive, productive force that motivates us to think, read, write, criticize, analyze, debate, and problematize; materiality is, therefore, what makes these activities appear to be “work.”

Marx’s labor theory of value illustrates how “commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labor are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value” (Capital Chapter 1).  In Marx’s account, a commodity is the opposite of unique, singular, sacred objects; it is a thing strictly intended for the extraction of surplus value through sale.  The value of a commodity is calculated by labor-time: an object that requires prolonged, high-skilled labor will have high value.  On the other end, mass-exercised, low-skill labor that is meant to be as efficient as possible produces objects that are low in value.  Thus, the commodified form of an object is, for Marx, a representation of alienated labor and the degeneration of humanity.  If we take Marx’s theory to be true, then spirituality appears to be a critique of materiality, it is a rejection of commodified labor, and an expression of nostalgia for a pre-industrial, unalienated relationship between humans and objects.  However, I would disagree with Marx about the existence of a pre-commodified form of labor and, in that vein, about the inherently commodified nature of anything that is mass-produced for the purpose of consumption.

Consider this: you go to a bookstore to pick up a copy of Capital, and you pay $12.99 (it’s on sale at Strand).  You’ve just paid some book publisher who holds the rights to reproduce Marx’s original writings in a commodified form.  You are, therefore, participating in the instrumentalization of Marx’s knowledge and ideas. This is a perfect example of modernity: nothing, not even theories, works of art, beauty or “truth” can exist outside the Iron Cage.

So are we trapped in the Iron Cage forever, destined to consume and produce knowledge only for instrumentalization?  I think not, and this is my point: nothing exists solely for the means, with no consideration for the ends.  Even the seemingly altruistic act of art pour l’art is designed to produce an energy and sensation for the artist and those who view the art.  High theory, and, more applicably for us NSSR students, critical theory, do not exist in some detached ideological sphere.  On the contrary, they are very attached to materiality in the sense that we quite literally feed ourselves and others through our academic work.  Knowledge is productive; this is the very foundation of Foucault’s analysis of power-knowledge relations in a regime of truth.

The regime of truth, the Iron Cage, and the materiality-spirituality dialectic are all important for those of us who are consuming and producing knowledge here at the New School.  We are all concerned about the lack of financial support here and at many universities across the country and world.  Furthermore, we are all concerned that one day, despite all these interesting and provocative things we juggle within our brains, we may struggle to feed ourselves and have to take on unsatisfying and (nightmarishly) corporate work.  Let’s remember, though, that materiality does not cancel out spirituality; neither does spirituality register any sort of definite critique of materiality.  It is best, I think, to consider them spaces that we move through intentionally and unconsciously, depending on where we are in our ongoing intellectual journeys.  In this way we can be sure to let our ideas be put to work without having to work against these very ideas.


Rachel Signer is an MA student in Anthropology and a co-editor of canon magazine. She likes Freud, structuralism, people who talk loudly on their cell phones in the elevator, GFSS meetings, and Levi-Strauss, not in that order.