Keywords for the Age of Austerity 14: Failure


“Fail” is “commonly used as an interjection to point our a person’s mistake or shortcoming, often regardless of its magnitude,” according to Know Your Meme, an indispensable resource for such things. According to the Internet folk history documented there, “fail” as a noun is a formation from a verb usage in a notorious, badly translated 1998 Japanese video game Blazing Star. When a player died, the game flashed a screen reading: “You fail it! Your skill is not enough – See you next time – Bye-bye.” Its transformation from this mistranslated verb usage into a mass noun (parenting fail, transparency fail, so much fail, etc.) apparently followed. 

For most of its history, the verb “to fail” has most often been the opposite of “succeed,” to “be absent or wanting of something desirable,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Its illustrious history stretches to 15 definitions there. Some of the intransitive meanings, like to “fall ill,” are somewhat dated but still around; others, like “to be wanting or deficient in,” comically approximate the modern slang usage on the web, especially when we read the OED’s sample sentences. Plato, in an 1877 translation, writes: “The Dialogue fails in unity.” Unity fail. 

Failing is resonant in more “serious” corners of the media, as well. There is the foreign-policy intellectual hobbyhorse of the “failed state,” the passive voice doing a lot of work here to describe the extreme immiseration of nations that show up on the top of such lists: Ethiopia, Congo, Chad, Afghanistan. More recent is the celebration of “failure” in entrepreneurship discourse, where it is closely related to “innovation.” Here, failure is a veritable fountain of obvious metaphors. Out of failure springs innovation. Failure is innovation’s foundation. Failure drives innovation. It’s also the mother of innovation. Simply celebrating “failure” in the business world proves the point—so many business-magazine articles on “failure” are clearly delighted with themselves just for reaching this boldly counterintuitive conclusion. Failure scored a particularly insipid cover story by NPR’s Adam Davison in the New York Times Magazine, which breezed through the history of capitalism (it never says the word, of course) as a series of brilliant “innovations” and daring risks by bold heroes unafraid to tempt failure. Davidson decries the “proselytizing” associated with innovation. Indeed, innovation as he uses the term is not a deity one worships but more like a world-spirit of progress marching across the generations, giving us smartphones, the Constitution, and the eight-hour workday. Failure, or the ability to risk it, is its driving force—whether that “failure” means the loss of other people’s money, like with a smartphone, or your life, like those who fought for a shorter working day.

To be fair, some of these defenses of “failing” make logical sense, but in the same way as a daily affirmation you hang in your office: you can’t succeed if you are afraid to fail, etc. Davidson’s warning about proselytizing aside, the above treatments of “failure” are entirely in keeping with the moralism that underlies the cult of entrepreneurship and which pervades so many of our other austerity keywords. For “entrepreneurship” ideologues, failure fits into this moralistic framework, with its celebration of lonely sacrifice and self-reliance. One must be purified in the fires of bankruptcy before finding true success; only after you have wandered through the wilderness of failure can you develop the “resilience” to ascend the mountaintop of innovation. One such anecdote describes a failed Silicon Valley entrepreneur who failed before starting a new company called…E.piphany.  Entrepreneurship failure stories, like conversion narratives, are always individualized like this, just as its success anecdotes lend themselves to hagiographic leadership cults.

Back to the Internet: there, “fail” is always used ironically, never used with the reverence that characterizes so much entrepreneurship rhetoric. One of these ironies is fail’s opposite, “win.” Why not “success” or “victory”? The answer, I think, is that both “failing” and “winning” ironize the competitiveness and atomization that are built into both the culture of social media and the cult of entrepreneurship. I’ve always thought the mass noun “fail” was funny in part because it sounds (to me) like a misapplied computing term rather than a mistranslation—a computer error, server failure, etc. Extending this to the “real,” 1.0 world—the factory foreman slips on a banana peel, epic fail!—ironizes the grandiose, world-spanning Internet as a humble and intrinsically funny object. Other examples of Internet-irony: the phrase “You win one internet,” dispensed as praise for Facebook bons mots; The Internet for Men, a real, off-brand cologne sold on the streets of Chicago in the late 1990s; or those YouTube videos of Bryant Gumbel befuddled by “internet” on the Today Show in 1994.

The ungrammatical use of “win,” on the other hand, ironizes the social ideal of “success,” entrepreneurial or otherwise, treating this as a game, and therefore either 1) rigged or 2) trivial, since the things as which one “wins” online are mostly unremunerative and fleeting: Facebook likes, an argument with a stupid stranger, Twitter followers, etc. At the same time, the pursuit of the epic win has the same sense of ruthless competition and “disruptive” striving that, as we know, is the stuff of which true entrepreneurs are made. 


We are pleased to present the ninth annual Failed States Index” (

If the opposite of “fail” is “win,” what is the opposite of “failed,” as in “failed state”? The question is never asked, of course, since the concept assumes as the normative standard of development the countries where the concept originates. (Obviously, to say that the United States and Britain have “won” development would be to admit that the whole business is a conflict, rather than a shared endeavor, and we mustn’t think that.) But failing has an obvious, common educational meaning. So if D.R. Congo is a “failed state,” maybe we should think of the United States of today as a Gentlemen’s C State: entitled and careless, coasting off the prestige of its parents.

Worse than being afraid to fail, as the entrepreneurship ideologists put it, is the inability to recognize if and how you have already failed. Self-awareness fail, all around.



Keywords for the Age of Austerity 13: Engagement

On Detroit Future City and the limits of so-called “participatory planning.”

“Community engagement” and “civic engagement” are phrases that first appear in English sometime in the mid-1950s, according to Google’s ngram database.  Before then, one might naively assume, there was no need for the thing, like the  cliché about camels not showing up in the Koran, and so the concept became popular once everyone noticed it missing. Yet the basic problem—political atomization and fraying community ties—is not new or unique to our times. What particular meaning, then, does the word “engagement” have for us now?


The term “civic engagement” is usually attributed to Robert Putnam’s influential 1995 Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which argued that American civic life had deteriorated since roughly the 1950s, the dawn of “community engagement” as a term in print. Putnam’s basic argument was that Americans had become less likely to join community organizations, from the PTA to the Elks to neighborhood bowling leagues, and more likely to join passively when they do, by writing an annual check or signing a petition.

The argument, at least in these broad strokes, isn’t new. The sociologists Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrel Lynd discussed the problems of “apathy,” “standardization,” and “isolation” in Muncie, IN in their famous book 192X book Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. For them, “apathy” referred to a lack of class  consciousness and political participation, while “standardization” and “isolation” pointed to the regularization or deterioration of social forms of leisure. So back in your Granddaddy’s day, the neighbors always used to visit more.

Putnam and others in the sociology and management studies world use civic engagement roughly synonymously with “social capital,” a dreadful phrase that itself encapsulates a broader trend many of these keywords document: the quantification and commodification of both virtue and social life. One goes to church for salvation, fellowship, and “social capital,” and not necessarily in that order.

“Social capital,” says the World Bank, “refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions.” Meanwhile, the Kennedy School of Government—I’m still waiting for my job interview—writes:

Social capital refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”]…The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings [No, it doesn’t—ed.] but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and, at least sometimes, for bystanders as well.

It’s an example of the proliferation of metaphorical “capital” (which supposedly “produces” metaphorical “value”) in academic and non-profit jargon. (“Human capital” is especially odious for the way in which it unwittingly recapitulates the traffic in humans as capital.) 

These may be an attempt, as the sociologist Claude Fischer suggests, to claim for the softer social sciences the prestige of economists. It also reflects the way in which formerly informal, individual, or creative forms of work, thought, and life—simply everyday neighborliness, formal cooperation, creativity itself—can be mined for whatever “value” they hold. So civic or community engagement is, in this sense, a measurable assessment of social interaction. The “engagement of the community,” as one often hears, refers to a community’s participation in its affairs. (I often use the word as a synonym for “participation” on my syllabi, with the idea that it emphasizes a collective responsibility for a class’ success).

“To engage” is also used to connote some action taken withthe public, as in “to engage the community in x.”


As with “innovation,” the noun is often used abstractly, with no clear object of the engagement nor subject doing the engaging. Take, for or example, the mission statement of the grant-making Knight Foundation, which funds arts and other projects in Detroit to promote “community success by supporting civic innovation, founded on robust civic engagement.”

The need for more “robust engagement” presumes, of course, that there isn’t enough of it, and perhaps that there used to be more, once. Why that might be is a longer story that depends on how you define the concept, but I think it’s no accident that “engagement” thrives in a moment of polarization and demobilization. The word and its usage simultaneously expresses a democratic faith in collective participation and a hierachical faith in individualization, a contradictory combination that a more detailed reading of its use might clarify.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a broad set of definitions for “engage” and “engagement,” but all of them involve some sense of a formal covenant, a contract, or a conflict: the marriage contract, some other legal agreement, or a military “engagement” between armies. (It is this last meaning, of course, that Capt. Picard is drawing upon.)

However, it’s hard to find one that suits the way many civic institutions routinely use the word, as participation or “buy-in.” The participatory idealism that Putnam’s “civic engagement” summons for us belongs to obsolete meanings: “the fact of being entangled,” for example, last common in the 16th century.  Others point to the talents of charm—“to gain, win over, attach by pleasing qualities”—a kind of seduction. “If you engage his heart,” wrote the Earl of Chesterfield in 1751, “you have a fair chance for imposing upon his understanding.” “To engage” here has an explicitly social yet also manipulative meaning.

For a specific example, let’s look at Detroit Future City, the strategic framework for the city’s planners, released in 2012 after 4 years of research. The project drew on the technical expertise of urban planners from around the country and was shaped decisively, or so the report claims, by the “engagement” of average Detroiters. The plan’s basic premise is that given Detroit’s vast surplus of idle public land, property development and the attraction of entrepreneurial investment will be the material basis of the future city. From the beginning of the report, one can read an anxiety about anticipated criticism of the urban planning process by a citizenry with a deep historical memory of destructive, racist urban renewal initiatives of the past. Words like “collaborative,” “collective,” and “engagement” appear throughout the report. The first paragraph emphasizes that the project “has been a collective journey, inviting diverse input from technical experts within Detroit and around the world and, most importantly, the community experts and everyday citizens.”

For an example of what the “strategic vision” of the DFC seems to define itself against, see this excerpt from a film that has circulated widely online. Detroit: A City on the Move was produced in 1965 in a clumsy predecessor of the more successful city-branding campaigns pioneered by New York City a decade later. In the section below, narrated by the doomed liberal mayor, Jerry Cavanaugh, urban planners emerge as the stars of the show, manipulating buildings around a scale model of the city like chess players arranging their moves.

Note the allusion, first of all, to a “resurgence” and a “renaissance,” an acknowledgment of Detroit’s post-war economic slump and a reminder to local reporters and headline writers that skepticism of “rebirth” metaphors should really be one’s default position when writing about the city.“Planning with a Purpose” is the credo: efficiency and progress, not engagement and innovation, are the bywords here. So in the move from grandiose “renaissances” to humbler “revivals,” from linear “progress” to speculative “innovation,” from the birds-eye view of “efficiency” down to street-level “engagement,” we can see the retreat from the “master plan,” with its top-down initiatives and illusions of control. But a retreat to what?

Detroit Future City proposed a more inclusive planning process with this history in mind. My friend Joshua Akers, a geographer at U-M Dearborn, recounts how embattled and stage-managed the “engagement” process was in a forthcoming article. After the first meetings drew large crowds  angry about poor city services, later events were carefully stage-managed: emcees ran the floor, and  audience participation was technologized in various ways. Attendees were given clickers that allowed them to “vote” on choices presented to them: did they think that education, for example, was their neighborhood’s greatest priority, or was it jobs or transportation? (There was no button for all of the above). There were in-person film booths where residents could record messages, and an interactive video game, called Detroit 24/7, which is regrettably no longer available to play online.

Regardless of the intentions of the project’s organizers—and the move away from authoritarian models of imposed reform seems laudable enough—what happened in practice is that community “engagement” is managed to suit expert models, rather than the expert models being shaped by popular participation. In the final report, community comments appear regularly in the form of pull-quotes, usually designed as a speech bubble from some silhouetted figure. See, for example, this comment on two of the report’s neighborhood typologies:


“Green Residential” and “Live+Make” are not Alexandra’s terms but the planners’. The mysterious Alexandra is simply saying whether they seem like a good idea or not.

Engagement as “participation” suggests a dynamic, two-way exchange, but Lord Chesterfield’s motivated seduction is clear in the DFC’s own explanation of their term: “Why engage?” the authors ask. You might wonder why a planning document of an ostensibly democratic polity even has to ask, but here’s what they say:

Civic engagement yields lasting benefits. This is true of any development endeavor or long-term initiative, including the Detroit Strategic Framework. Here’s why: first, civic engagement helps strengthen and expand the base of support for a given effort. More people become informed, activated and mobilized through engagement efforts. Opposition is less likely because concerns are addressed within the process. […] 

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly for the Strategic Framework, civic engagement actually improves the substance or content of an initiative. An effort that has been supported by civic engagement will more accurately reflect the ideas of the people it affects… (327)

What is rather bluntly acknowledged here is that engagement is valuable because it blunts opposition and strengthens support—in other words, it’s political and performative. What is important is that it feels rewarding to an audience. While the report concludes by arguing that “engagement” improves the work,  it’s hard not to read this second paragraph as a mere gesture, with the intentions laid out in the first.

The point of engagement in this sense is not to involve the public in making decisions, but make them feel involved in decisions that others will make. That this may be done with the best of intentions is important, of course, but ultimately besides the point. Like “stakeholder,” “engagement” thrives in a moment of political alienation and offers a vocabulary of collaboration in response. So if civic engagement is in decline, one thing that is not is the ritualistic performance of civic participation. The annual election-cycle ritual in American politics is a case in point here. In one populist breath, we routinely condemn the corruption of politicians who, it is said, never listen to the average voter. And in the next, we harangue the average voter for failing to participate in a process we routinely describe as corrupted. So it’s not the “apathy” or “disengagement” of the public that we should lament or criticize—it’s the institutions that give them so many reasons to be disengaged in the first place.


Engagement and participation: defined here as informing the public about the project


New Caudillos, Returning Caudillos, and Last Caudillos

In its editorial on Evo Morales’ re-election victory in Bolivia last week, the New York Times described Morales as one of a group of “new caudillos” threatening “democratic values,” united in their desire to “appoint allies to electoral and judicial bodies and to build patronage networks that turn out the vote,” “weaken institutions,” and assert “greater control over the press.” (Note the evasive comparative adjective in this last—greater than what?). Glenn Greenwald has already observed how “democracy” here is little more than  a code word for U.S. power. “Meanwhile,” Greenwald concludes, quoting the editorial, “the very popular, democratically elected leader of Bolivia is a grave menace to democratic values – because he’s ‘dismal for Washington’s influence in the region.’”

Any hand-wringing about “democracy” in Latin America should of course remind readers of Latin America’s Cold War, when the most horrific mass cruelties were justified in its name. And “caudillo’s” popularity shows the durability of Cold War terminology. It’s always used in English media to signal to an audience the author’s historical seriousness and command of the subject (“Well, in Latin America, you see, they have a term, ‘caudillo,’—you know, it’s pronounced COW-DEE-YO”]. The Times’ editorial is a textbook example of this usage. At its best, the word is simply a pretentious misreading of Latin American history, and at its worst, an ethnic slur. Yet there is something strange about the persistence of the word “caudillo,” if only because it belongs to both the Spanish language and to history, and U.S. journalism is so often incurious about both.

The Spanish Fascist Francisco Franco, whose rule coincided with the term’s revival in English media in the 1930s, was “El Caudillo,” the caudillo to end all caudillos. A casual search of the Times’ archives shows how“caudillo” is always used in either a lapsarian or apocalyptic sense. Last week’s editorial was not the first to ward off, fingers crossed, the rise of the “new caudillo”; one reads always of the “last caudillo” or the “return” of the caudillo. Debates raged about who was the “worst caudillo” ever  in the Dominican Republic. Michele Bachelet of Chile, who is a woman and therefore not a caudillo, took power, naturally, “after the caudillo.”


Woody Allen as a bearded caudillo in Bananas!

The term “caudillo” is by now so saturated with Anglo-American stereotypes of the Latin American macho that it is useless as a meaningful term to describe anything except typical U.S. misconceptions of Latin America. Often translated as “strongman,” the origins of the political form of caudillismo are in the tumultuous post-Independence period in South America, where regional political or paramilitary bosses asserted control over provincial territory in a weakened central state. For this reason, continuing to call Evo Morales or Nicolas Maduro “caudillos” seems like the equivalent of calling Barack Obama a “robber baron” when he bypasses Congress. In other words, even if there is a grain of truth in the analogy, the popularity of “caudillo” shows how when discussing Latin American politics the recourse to tropes of “backwardness” is nearly irresistible. A U.S. president’s faults are of his own time; on the other hand, Latin Americans are always battling back the primitive past that lives in their midst and in their heads. 

The New York Times’ reference to Bolivia’s allegedly degrading “democratic values” is a clue to the term’s basically culturalist meaning. For all the editorial’s lawyerly talk of “institutions” what we’re really talking about here is an authoritarian cultural predisposition, native to the soil south of the Rio Grande. Why else use the Spanish word to describe what is essentially party politics everywhere else? The term “caudillo” suggests that this is a political form peculiar to Spanish America, but by their own definition, the New York Times could use it for any head of a political machine anywhere. Is Michael Bloomberg, who revoked the city’s term limits to serve three terms, New York’s “last caudillo”?


The New York Times, October 9, 1932

Note that this doesn’t foreclose Latin Americans and Latin Americanist scholars from using the term. For example, see the anti-Chavez Venezuelan political scientist Javier Corrales’ coinage of the term neocaudillismo (note, again, how caudillismo is always renewing itself). Corrales shows the difficulties of trying to forge a coherent political theory out of what is essentially an ethnic stereotype. In his estimation, neocaudillismo includes both newcomers and political outsiders (like Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez in Bolivia) and ex-presidents returning to office (Alán García in Peru and Carlos Menem in Argentina), so one wonders who it excludes. “Latin America is still the land of caudillos,” Corrales concludes, in a sentence that sounds like it was written a half-century ago. “These new caudillos may not promote coups, insurrections, or totalitarianism, but they still weaken parties, erode checks and balances, and scare adversaries.”

The popularity of “caudillo” signals the obsession with “political institutions” in foreign policy and development literature as the meaningful instrument and measure of progress. And progress, of course, has usually meant imitation of the United States, where “political institutions” are of course strong, fair, and non-partisan, except when they aren’t. And this is why, for me, there is this odd tone of familiarity with the caudillo in the U.S. press and academia—I can’t think of an equivalent “insider” term in foreign-policy coverage of other parts of the “third world.” Saudi Arabia and Cambodia, say, are so unfamiliar that they must be translated. But we know Latin America, the term seems to suggest, and we how it could be so much more like the United States, if only it could vanquish the partisan caudillos who are always reappearing, have just reappeared, or have just been vanquished, only to reappear again—one more instance of what Martí called “the scorn of our formidable neighbor who does not know us.”


Happy Imperialist #Leadership Day from the Keywords #Team! [Updated!]

Every Columbus Day, some of the less historically (to say nothing of morally) inclined out there like to draw fatuous links between the contemporary cult of entrepreneurship and the legacy of Christopher Columbus’ conquest—err, startup—of America some 500 years ago. Who better to take life and leadership lessons from than a famously venal and cruel 15th-century authoritarian sea captain whose own men overthrew him?

Wikipedia attributes this bland affirmation to Andre Gide, from The Counterfeiters (1925).

Columbus was the “entrepeneur’s entrepreneur,” whatever that means, says a blogger for VentureBeat. A piece in the Harvard Business Review, always a reliable source for insipid business mythologies, argues that Columbus’s colonization of the Caribbean made him the original disruptive innovator. The author, a business professor named Patrick Murphy, sensitively concedes that “those colonial activities, to be sure, turned wicked.” To be sure. A market analyst for takes the analogy a bit further, calling Spain’s Queen Isabella the first “venture capitalist.” Others call Queen Isabella, who along with King Ferdinand expelled Muslims and Jews from Spain in the 1492 Reconquista, Columbus’ “angel investor.” Genocidal Christianity dies hard.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce honored the holiday with a listicle called “5 Evergreen Lessons from a 15th-Century Entrepreneur,” which is full of penetrating insights like this:

There was no GPS, no internet, no Weather Channel, or petroleum. In 1492—similar to now—entrepreneurs were dependent on the knowledge and inventions of their predecessors.

It’s probably pointless to point out that, even if we concede that “entrepreneurship” means anything now, it means less than nothing in the 15th century. Yet if your historical consciousness is so shallow that you can do little more than observe that people back then didn’t have GPS, it would do no good to get down into the weeds of colonial mercantilism, feudal patronage, slave labor, etc.

But then there is this, on Columbus’ lessons in product “evangelism”:


Here’s what Columbus had to say to “the very high, very excellent, and puissant Princes, King and Queen of the Spains” on the subject of “evangelism.” In the Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus, the Genoese entrepreneur described the Taíno people of the modern-day Bahamas this way:

They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion.

On the other hand, this historical visionary aims to debunk a few myths about Columbus the entrepreneur.


Elsewhere in his post, this author argues that one of the key lessons of Columbus’ lobbying of the Spanish Court is that “‘no’ really means ‘no, for now,’” revising and repurposing an anti-rape slogan as justification for imperial conquest.)

And in response to efforts in Seattle to dump Columbus Day in favor of a holiday honoring America’s indigenous people, Randy Aliment of the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce for the Northwest told the Post-Intelilgencer:

Christopher Columbus was this country’s first and bravest entrepreneur. He had a noble vision, gathered a team, and had the initiative to solicit funds for his high risk startup from the king and queen of Spain.

…to which I can only echo Twitter user Vlad here:

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 12: DIY (Do It Your [Damn] Self)

A New York Times op-ed written by Jayne Merkel, an architecture critic, argues that the New York City Housing Authority could address its vast backlog of unfinished repairs—caused by the long-term cuts in federal funding—by training residents to make their own repairs. She calls this “A DIY Fix for Public Housing.”

 The argument rests on a couple of obvious major fallacies. As with so many of our keywords, it values individual derring-do and ignores structural forces, resulting in the apolitical assumption that closing the federal funding gap is impossible, and thus “arguing over who will make nonexistent repairs is fruitless.” (One could borrow this logic to dismiss any political demand that seems, as most important ones do, unrealistic: “arguing about how women will exercise their nonexistent franchise is fruitless,” “arguing about taxation with nonexistent representation is fruitless,” and so on.). Second is its confidence that “almost anyone can replaster a wall.” (No.)

Reader Barbara A. Knecht of New York City already pointed out the idea’s other problems, in a letter to the editor so sensible one wonders how it slipped by the editors:

 …[F]or the cost and time to develop, administer and insure a training program, the authority could employ and deploy the trainers to make repairs.

…Would the same recommendation hold for the residents of a Park Avenue rental building with a noncompliant landlord? Housing authority tenants pay rent and have a right to expect their landlords to keep up their end of the contract.

Knecht points out something both very old in the history of “do-it-yourself,” and something very new in its recent appropriation as a term of austerity individualism. Informal and inexpert by nature, straddling work and leisure, DIY has never been a strict necessity: you don’t just “do it yourself” because you have to, but also, and sometimes mostly, because you want to. This informality obviously makes it a poor solution for an affordable housing crisis.


Popular Mechanics, Jul. 1960.

What seems new in Merkel’s use of DIY is the migration of this individual ethic of “do-it-yourself” to the sphere of social policy. Besides improving the plaster and the work ethic of public housing residents, a DIY spirit will also relieve the state of its obligations to them. And so, like its close cousins “local,” “artisanal,” and the neologisms “hacker” and “maker,” DIY is a practice of middle-class consumption masquerading as a practice of citizenship. And like the cult of entrepreneurship, such uses of “DIY” reframe social disempowerment as individual achievement, delegating to citizens social costs without giving them any social power in return. It is a lamentable sign of our times that 1) someone can seriously propose that public housing residents, mostly people of color, should work without pay for their landlord and that 2) such a proposal pretends to be “progressive.”

As Steven Gelber has argued, the rise of “do-it-yourself” as amateur home repair dates to the middle of the 20th century. By 1950, the classified section of Popular Mechanics advertised an array of tools and tutorials to do-it-yourselfers.More Americans lived in owner-occupied homes than ever before—30 million by 1960, 10 times the number in 1890—and a majority worked for someone else. The growth of home ownership and the separation of home and work space created the conditions for doing it yourself as a middle-class, mostly male pursuit.


From Popular Mechanics, Mar. 1960: do-it-yourself leathercraft, welding, laminating, and…will-writing.

“When industrialization separated living and working spaces,” Gelber writes, “it also separated men and women into non-overlapping spheres of competence.” But the desire to do-it-yourself came not just from economic necessity, argues Gelber. It was a satisfying hobby for desk-bound workers and a respectable way for men to share the labor of the home while asserting a degree of autonomy and expertise within it. Even as the exclusively male claim on “do-it-yourself” culture has frayed, any Home Depot commercial or Tim Allen rerun will remind us of the anxious performance of masculinity that comes with doing it yourself.


It’s not clear (to me) when DIY regularly appeared as an acronym, but many contemporary uses of the word draw on its association with the print style of self-published punk fanzines and the anti-professionalism of punk more generally. Historians of punk often credit the short-lived 1976-77 London zine Sniffin’ Glue with popularizing the DIY aesthetic—a graphic language built on Xeroxed pages and hand-written or cut-and-pasted type, and a writing style celebrating the close, collaborative networks of authors, bands, and artists.

As Sniffin’ Glue’s creator Mark P. insisted, however, the impulse towards self-producing streamlined industrial products—whether they are music magazines or manufactured goods—goes back further, to other forms of sports and music zines in Britain and to countercultural publications like the 1960s publication Whole Earth Catalog, subtitled “Access to Tools.”  


In a recent essay in The New Yorker, Evgeny Morozov makes an insightful critique of the contemporary celebration of “makers” and “hackers,” which borrows rhetorically from the rebellious posture and community-mindedness of punk DIY. He traces it further back, to Whole Earth and to the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement. (To me, punk DIY, as a specifically media movement, seems different, since punk zines never pretended to be reforming the industrial labor system, and therefore had less of the apolitical hubris that for Morozov fatally compromise the Arts and Crafts and 60s “maker” movements). Arts and Crafts, as Jackson Lears has also written, responded to regimentation and inequality in modern industry by reviving old methods of craft production. By restoring to the worker the autonomy the factory had taken away, the movement would also provide consumers with the beauty they were missing. Yet without structural reforms of the economic system, critics pointed out, Arts and Crafts, which aimed to liberate workers, just became a niche market for middle class consumers. Morozov levels the same charge at so-called “makers” today, who see “ingrained traits of technology where others might see a cascade of decisions made by businessmen and policymakers.” 


 “Workers of the world, disperse.”

Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, January 1971 (via

Morozov quotes one of the maker movement’s apostles, Kevin Kelly, who writes in his book, Cool Tools: “The skills for this accelerated era lean toward the agile and decentralized.” This technophilic rhetoric of speed, nimbleness, and decentralization in the individual parallel the celebration in the corporate world of the same values for capital. As in Merkel’s DIY fix for public housing, which imagines the collective of public housing residents as an assemblage of atomized, vulnerable “yourselves,” the DIY celebration of autonomy can be easily colonized by a corporate zeal for individualism. (To make the link with government austerity even clearer, Merkel ends her column by saying that public-housing residents could “take pride in his or her home…and save the city millions.”)

And now, search Twitter for “DIY” and you will find a host of consumer goods which offer evidence of this: the so-called “sharing economy” has appropriated the DIY label, reframing the vulnerability of precarious employment as self-fulfilling autonomy. Etsy craftmakers eking out extra income hustling “DIY” crafts online, AirBnB apartments are DIY hotels (or, more grandiosely, “DIY urbanism”), and Uber asks you to do cabdriving yourself, with little regulation and decreasing pay.


If, as some have argued, the abuses of the “sharing economy” fall hardest on women and in female-identified professions, then it is no surprise that “DIY,” once the male preserve of Popular Mechanics and This Old House reruns, now markets itself mostly to women. And of course, we should applaud fewer Tim Allens,  fewer macho tool commercials, fewer uses of the phrase “man cave.” Yet the shift in the gendering of DIY also confirms Gelber’s argument that “doing-it-yourself” was a form of productive leisure that also reproduces gender roles in the home. Search Twitter for “DIY” and you will find women’s magazines offering plans for DIY jewelry, Martha Stewart’s DIY pumpkin spice latte, even something called a “DIY chicken coop chandelier.” Much of this usage, which seems to want the anti-establishment posture of Whole Earth or Kill Rock Stars, drains the phrase of the particular meanings it once had (there’s no solidarity in a pumpkin space latte) or even any meaning at all (didn’t “DIY dinner” used to be called “cooking”?).

And then there is this: “Drone it yourself,” a military-style drone you can assemble and launch all by yourself.


My letter of application to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Senior Professorship of Social Innovation

Dear Sir or Madam, But Most Likely Sir:

I am writing to apply for your advertised position in Social Innovation. As a Comparative Literature Ph.D, I am proficient in the fabrication of closed tautological circles of non-meaning; this makes me the ideal candidate for a job seeking “innovative teachers…for the position of lecturer in innovation.”

On the other hand, as an Assistant Professor of English, I know only too well the dangers of failing to innovate. For example, I am often forced to talk to human students who are sitting in bounded classrooms often wired for multimedia applications I am unable or simply unwilling to use. Paper books are an obsolete technology barely worthy of the word, and poetry, despite its promising shortness, takes far too long to understand. These hardships have granted me an acute understanding of the innovation deficit your department so bravely seeks to overcome.

In spite of English Literature’s disciplinary hostility to “innovation,” change agency, and both entre- and intra-preneurship, my training as a literature scholar would offer immediate benefits to your department’s offerings in Social Innovation. For example, I would be pleased to proofread your job advertisements, in order to innovate their presently sub-optimal levels of intelligibility.

The professorship is open to both distinguished practitioners, especially those with a deep understanding of social entrepreneurship, and to tenure-level scholars in fields related to social innovation, including social entrepreneurs, social intrapreneurs and, more broadly, social change makers.  

“Social entrepreneurs” are not a field, as the sentence’s syntax suggests, and that final clause could be made nimbler by using the adjective “social” only once, as here: “social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and change makers.” In addition, it’s not clear that “change makers” constitutes a broader category than “entrepreneurs,” yet neither is it obviously more specific. Given my exposure to creative industries like literature, I would be excited to invent more terminology to make this list of synonyms for “businessman” even longer. 

But innovating new ways of saying “entrepreneur” isn’t the only thought-leadership I would exercise within the field of Innovation Studies. As thinkfluencers have argued persuasively, disruption must occur not only within fields and businesses but institutions and organizations. My first intrapreneurial initiative, therefore, would be to fatally disrupt your (hopefully soon to be our) department. Moving our courses entirely online and replacing department faculty other than myself with low-wage adjuncts armed with xeroxes of J.S. Schumpeter quotations would improve efficiency, reach even more students, and ultimately make a bigger difference. 

To paraphrase a great disruptor: We must destroy the Professorship of Social Innovation in order to save it. I am available for immediate Skype interviews.


John Patrick Leary  

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 11: Civility (at NYU and the University of Illinois)

Earlier this month, the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign recently took the unprecedented step of rescinding a job offer to the Palestinian-born scholar Steven Salaita, who was set to begin classes there this week. It was a unilateral move by the upper administration, apparently taken in response to a series of tweets in which Salaita condemned the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Others have already written on the case and its implications for academic freedom—see especially Corey Robin’s blog and this op-ed by many Illinois faculty, for example. (Also check out @FakeCaryNelson on Twitter, for all the latest from a fictional version of the former advocate of academic freedom.)

In the spirit of this blog, I want to focus on the 2 official statements on the case from Illinois’ Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, and its Board of Trustees. As efforts at damage control, they are on the one hand singular in their ineloquence and ineptitude. Yet on the other hand they are familiar in their abuse of notions like “civility,” “debate,” and “discourse”—especially when the latter are “robust,” a keyword forthcoming on this blog.

As others have already observed, the letters from the Chancellor and the Board make a mockery of important scholarly concepts like academic freedom, constitutionality, and English syntax. In a key section of her letter, published as a blog post on her office’s website, Chancellor Wise reaches a cannot-and-will-not crescendo that is meant to signal to you that this is a Robust Leader speaking. It ends with an illogical mess that signals to me that this is instead a rather desperate manager (without a copy editor) grasping at rhetorical straws:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.

Viewpoints, of course, can’t be demeaned—nor is there any attempt to explain what constitutes “personal,” “disrespectful,” demeaning, or abusive words, much less the combination of all four, much less still the relationship between viewpoints and those that express them.

Among these other sins, though, Wise’s short letter is also rather redundant: it uses “diverse and diversity” 4 times, “discourse” three times, and “civil” or “civility” 3 times. To quote her again at length:

Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.

Note the redundant use of “dialogue, discourse and debate” here, in which all 3 are treated as identical concepts, their differences elided in the banal, alliterative evocation of intellectual life as imagined by bureaucrats—a sing-songy pantomime of actual thinking.

The follow-up letter from the Board of Trustees doubles down on Wise’s careless invocation of “civility” as the highest virtue of intellectual life. They use it as part of a grander claim about the university’s social and political mission:

Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views…The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi­cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.

Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend.

(Please note, just as an aside, the allusion to American military casualties, and the consequent suggestion that the war dead gave all for the Illinois Board of Trustees.)

The Board’s combination of scholarly “civility” and democratic citizenship brings together two threads in the use of this vague, popular term. Besides the above, think of the “Civility Caucus” in Congress, or the regular lamentations in the press at election time that inter-party squabbling is too “coarse” and hostile. In all these cases, the celebration of “civility” conflates the tone of disagreement with disagreement itself, and ultimately suppresses both. As I wrote in a longer essay on the subject in Guernica:

The desire for civil discourse in mainstream politics conceals a deeper desire for a politics of consensus, with no major points of either ideological or practical disagreement. In this view, politics becomes simply a process of managing government bureaucracy; fundamental social conflicts do not exist, only rhetorical ones do.

The other trouble with “civility” is that it is unclear what it means, or if it means anything. In the Salaita case, if his offense is anti-Semitism—a demonstrably untrue charge—than it should be enough for Wise to denounce him for that alone. Instead, as Brian Leiter writes in a piece on the Salaita affair, “incivility” seems here to simply mean bad manners—something nobody should want university administrators adjudicating, nor people losing their livelihoods over. 

Of course, these notions of civility (and again, Wise’s related four D’s—debate, discourse, diversity, and dialogue) as the glue holding campuses together are always summoned by administrators as rhetorical weapons against particularly troublesome campus dissenters. So on the simplest level, “civility” is merely an invention to discredit your opponent’s point of view as irrational. Given the word’s etymological links with “civilize” and “civilization,” this is a mode of attack with which Palestinians like Salaita are likely quite familiar.


A photo of Cary Nelson (at left), uncivilly blocking traffic at the NYU library in 2005, during the graduate assistant strike (via Mondoweiss)

As a graduate student at NYU during a 2005-06 strike by the graduate employee union, we heard a lot of civility talk from university administrators who were hostile to graduate assistant unionization but were unwilling to honestly say why. NYU loved to intimate that our parent union, the UAW, would try to rewrite syllabi, that unionization would forever sully ties between faculty and students, that it was hostile to undergraduates.

As with so many keywords beloved by university administrators— “innovation,” “entrepreneurship,” and so on—there is an opportunistic element of the sacred, or at least the sacrosanct, in these treatments of the university. Once administrators feel threatened, campuses become halls of peaceful contemplation, “safe harbors,” as the Illinois Board of Trustees puts it, from the tumult of the world outside.

For academic workers, via Corey Robin: If you want to join a specific pledge from a discipline or wish to sign the general statement, here are the critical links:

  1. General, non-discipline-specific, boycott statement: 1402 and counting!
  2. Philosophy: 340. Email John Protevi at or add your name in a comment at this link.
  3. Political Science: 174. Email Joe Lowndes at
  4. Sociology: 248.
  5. History: 66.
  6. Chicano/a and Latino/a Studies: 74
  7. Communications: 94
  8. Rhetoric/Composition: 32.
  9. English: 266. Email Elaine Freedgood at
  10. Contingent academic workers: 210.

11.Anthropology: 134

  1. Women’s/Gender/Feminist Studies: 54. Email Barbara Winslow

And if you’re not an academic but want to tell the UI to reinstate Salaita, you can sign this petition. More than 15,000 have.