On Love – Unrequited, Political and Otherwise … Again: Tackling the Taboo

By James Anderson

For three years in a row now I have contributed a Valentine’s Day, love-themed column to the Graduate Assistants United website.

In my 2014 piece on unrequited love, I referenced Noam Chomsky, Kendrick Lamar, Phil Ochs, Marina Sitrin, Spanish anarcho-syndicalists circa 1936, the ideological embodiment of capitalist cooptation (Steve Jobs) and political scientist James C. Scott, among others. In my 2015 piece I opened by quoting Eduardo Galeano before embarking on a wild and steamy tangent about the history of love and revolution in France, authoring what was in retrospect likely my semi-conscious and probably inappropriate attempt at a poorly-coded love letter.

Needless to say, the theme of unrequited love remains a recurring one in my life. Heretofore, few are lining up to “Dance Me to the End of Love,” to borrow the title of the Leonard Cohen track, and this love drought is despite – or perhaps because of – the multiple off-rhythm renditions of the song I insist each time on performing for my would-be beloved.

This Valentine’s Day thus offers the opportunity for further introspection, self-reflection, self-loathing and conscious use of self-deprecating humor. The latter, I should add, has proven woefully inadequate when it comes to cultivating intimate interpersonal relations but immensely helpful in keeping me sane on days like Valentine’s Day when I otherwise wind up alone diluting my bottle of cheap scotch with a mix of ice and heartache-filled tears.

Modern Valentine’s Day might have become popular, as Tom Chivers noted, in mid-18th century England with the “passing of love notes,” the “precursor to the St Valentine’s Day card as we know it,” followed by Esther Howland of Worcester, Mass., mass producing cards using cheaper lace in the United States in 1847, leading to the present-day commercialized holiday. Yes, the holiday now sees some couples enjoying fine wine and orgasmic Michael Recchiuti chocolates while others keep themselves warm with tear-scotch, but that is no justification for ignoring it.

Painful and problematic as the day is, it also offers us a chance to draw important parallels and broach taboo topics. That sounds sexy anyway. So let’s roll with it.

Rejections Come in Many Forms

Returning to the always returning issue of unrequited love, it seems the phenomenon is not limited to intimacy, or lack thereof. Indeed, similarly unrequited feelings arise from less-than-successful employment searches.

This is especially true for anyone who has worked and sought work as an adjunct professor or in other fields of research and writing for and about economic justice.

Department chairs appear chomping at the bit to let you know that your pedagogical services will not be needed next semester, as you’re a precariously employed adjunct on a per-semester contract and it is at the university’s whim whether you get to teach that class in the spring or starve.

Even unionized jobs and union employers lament, as one recently did in an email message I received, that they “had to make some difficult decisions,” and thus “regret to inform you that you were not selected as a finalist.” The phrase “not selected as a finalist,” stands out because little did you know you were vying for a spot on the Olympic team, or squaring off against contestants in a beauty pageant or hoping your career stats are good enough to garner further consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame – or whatever other competitive arena involves finalist selecting, which just sounds silly in the job search context.

Now, to be sure, working class persons are coerced into competing with other working class persons to sell their labor power in markets far more competitive than the monopolistic ones in which those working people usually produce things for or provide services within.

At universities, the dwindling number of tenure-line jobs has meant an intensified level of competition among would-be professors. The growing ranks of contingent faculty also compete for college classes to teach.

Some faculty unions absorb both adjuncts and tenured professors into their organizational structure and bargaining units. In Southern California, where I for some reason reside – and where educators cannot afford to live where they teach – this strategy has mixed results.

The California Faculty Association recently authorized a five-day strike set for April 13-15 and April 18-19 if the union and the California State University management are unable to reach an agreement in negotiations before that time. The CFA continues its “Fight for Five” campaign, insisting upon a five percent raise for all faculty. The university administration, so far, has refused to budge beyond the two percent increase offered.

In contrast to the two, which faculty claim is too tiny, the five percent raise would benefit both the adjunct who makes as little as $700/month per class and the tenured professor pulling in a solid six figures with benefits.

The fight is still a worthwhile one for sure, and solidarity is needed.

But adjuncts are also disadvantaged in ways non-contingent faculty are not. Although the CFA has a contract that ensures those who have taught part-time for two consecutive semesters in an academic year must receive a one-year appointment at the previous years’ time base or higher, that only holds if that lecturer is indeed reappointed. The collective bargaining agreement for the CFA also stipulates that lecturers be given “careful consideration” if they apply for subsequent employment, but nothing is guaranteed.

Adjuncts are all too often the human embodiment of unrequited love. When they have to pick up additional jobs on top of their teaching just to pay rent, pedagogy can suffer. In Southern California, where one is hard pressed to find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,500 per month, this is especially true.

Yet, simultaneously, as adjuncts suffer and service workers at, say, the local Ralphs, a weird West Coast version of the Kroger grocery company where an adjunct might pick up a second job, make under $10/hour, the opulent social strata in the same city boast multi-million dollar beachside homes and enjoy the perennial sunny weather and palm trees – one of the only botanical organisms that still strikes me as pretentious  – year round.

Even as Snoop Dogg opens the track, “California Gurls,” by saying “Greetings, loved ones,” at the beginning, adding, “let’s take a journey” – and you want so badly to go on that journey with him – you soon realize that Katy Perry does not love you, she’s not coming and life is not all lollipops and gumdrops like in the music video.

Snoop, Katy and a select few might frolic around the beach in bikinis and boardshorts in February when it is supposed to freezing cold if you understand winter months from a Midwest perspective, as I still do. You, on the other hand, have to worry about how you’re going to pay your bills.

Calling SoCal culture “laid back,” your working class Midwest understanding tells you, is really just using a euphemism to ideologically justify privilege and indifference to suffering.

That was a little harsh. But what some call the “SoCal sense of entitlement” is not exactly conducive to labor struggles. It is all the more difficult when it seeps into the classroom, despite many students at Cal State campuses, for example, coming from working class backgrounds and being subjected to the oppression of egregious tuition and fees – and, as at California State University San Marcos, $380 per semester parking charges – that demand saddling oneself with massive amounts of student debt. That privatization of education through exorbitant increases in tuition and fees can contribute to a market-based, consumer mentality in the classroom. Combined with the aforementioned SoCal sensibilities, this can make an effective pedagogy of love not only unrequited, but next to impossible.

Loving the Graduate Student Struggle

Unfortunately, indifference is not limited to any one state. It is, however, far too prevalent in higher education.

I can recall being told as a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale that if I was upset and angry, I should see a psychologist. Mental health is incredibly important. People no doubt benefit immensely from therapy. That’s uncontroversial. But the over-psychologizing in the instance just described is notable for several reasons. As I argued in a recent talk I gave at San Diego State University, it should come as no surprise that those in positions of relative privilege and with a modicum of institutional power – like most tenured professors – might be inclined to divorce concerns for psychological and emotional health from lived material conditions. Those are material conditions – institutional arrangements, income allocations, social stratifications and wealth disparities – that disproportionately benefit them. The insistence, consciously or not, on downplaying the realities of that structural violence within the university serves to reproduce the relative privilege of certain professors and legitimate the super-exploitation of others – like over-worked, underpaid and stressed out (because they’re overworked and underpaid!) Graduate Assistants. Such an ideology, or set of mental conceptions with frameworks of assumptions and presuppositions, that would erase the connection between material conditions and mental or emotional health ironically arises from, or at minimum tends to be related to, those very material conditions and the class positions associated with them.

However, those injustices and the unequal distributions of care, concern and understanding for others struggling within the institutional hierarchy do not only apply to professor-student relations. A graduate student’s class background, as well as the social and cultural capital accumulated as a result of those lived experiences, similarly reproduces harmful power relations within the university.

In his book, “The Utopia of Rules,” David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, recounts his own experience as a graduate student, underscoring how the inter-generational transmission of cultural and social capital conferred by class origins results in easier experiences for some, dreadful times for others:

As one of the few students of working-class origins in my own graduate program, I watched in dismay as professors first explained to me that they considered me the best student in my class—even, perhaps, in the department—and then threw up their hands claiming there was nothing that could be done as I languished with minimal support—or during many years none at all, working multiple jobs, as students whose parents were doctors, lawyers, and professors seemed to automatically mop up all the grants, fellowships, and student funding.

Even the most militant grads can be oblivious to these power disparities. I recall speaking with – and perhaps in some ways loving, unrequitedly – a brilliant PhD student who did amazing work for her graduate student-worker union; she also conducted fieldwork with an inspiring revolutionary movement. But coming from a well-heeled neighborhood in the Bay Area, she just did not seem to comprehend the operations of social reproduction in and through the university as described above.

Social Relations Counseling and How-To Tips

Yet, all is not lost. Sure, our egos and other things should be stroked a bit so we can recover some sense of self-worth. As necessary and titillating as that sounds, there are other concrete steps to take.

Unions, especially those representing adjunct faculty in higher education, could start including or at least showing solidarity with the unemployed. When a lecturer does not get classes one semester, unions can make a concerted effort to find that person work for a living wage, either within the union itself or within another ally organization.

In so doing, the idea of “right to work” could be returned to its original meaning to regain commitment to the common good.

As I pointed out last Valentine’s Day, the phrase has undergone ideological inversion over time. It now refers to statutes prohibiting agreements between labor unions and employers that would require workers to join a union as a condition of membership or would require those working at a unionized workplace to pay union dues or fees. So-called “right-to-work” (often written with hyphens), or RTW, legislation undermines the ability of unions to garner the necessary funds and gain the necessary members to stay strong. As evidence suggests, RTW laws result in lower wages while widening the gap between productivity and pay.

“Therefore,” wrote Louis Blanc, a French social theorist active during the revolutions of 1848, the year after Esther Howland went about making modern Valentine’s Day a reality in the US, and when a real “right to work” campaign in France championed very different values, “in demanding that the right to live by labour be regulated and guaranteed, we do more than defend millions of unfortunates against the oppression of power or change; we, embrace, in its highest generalization, in its profoundest significance, the cause of all human beings,” a far cry from the usurped meaning for purposes of union busting popular today. In his book, “The Organization of Labour,” Blanc makes the case for the state to create and support worker cooperatives so as to guarantee people the right to decent and meaningful employment.

Without necessarily relying on government to take action as Blanc assumed necessary in the nineteenth century, unions today could leverage their institutional power to perform similar functions. This has already been done, to a degree, in certain areas.

The United Steelworkers, for example, have advanced a union co-op model that would ensure workers in a cooperative enjoy the rights and benefits that come with unionization, in addition to retaining the traditional benefits associated with worker co-ops, like being a part-owner of an enterprise and thus having a say in who gets to make major decisions.

In similar fashion, worker-owners with the Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx became affiliated with Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union several years back. Unionization empowered workers to use the grievance process to resolve employer-employee disputes when necessary, and it led to the creation of a union-backed education fund to assist CHCA workers in learning for personal development as well as career advancement.

With help from the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative, there are also now several inter-connected, unionized worker cooperatives in Ohio like Our Harvest, Apple Street Market and Sustainergy.

Even in Southern California, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, a self-described “union of unions,” has committed to supporting union co-op projects going forward.

The union co-op model is one avenue that could be explored for ensuring a real “right to work” for temporarily unemployed adjuncts and for those in other industries who have been rendered disposable by an economy so rotten not even a mother could love it.

Unions still need to address oft-overlooked power disparities in their own organizations, however.

Graduate Assistant unions can promote greater consciousness of how class impacts participation and empowerment not just within the university, but even within organizations, like labor unions, formed to overcome those very divides. Prioritizing class analysis – along with analysis of other modes of oppression – and a class conscious participatory democracy as an integral part of union structures could enable a more equitable exercise of power among members. Organizational forms can be adjusted so as to account for the different knowledges, habits and serious social scars some members carry with them into social struggles. It should be stressed that those scars can both hinder and facilitate realizing the potentials of those persons that have been scarred and left previously love-deficient when the individual hardship they harbor is re-articulated as a social problem demanding collective action, and the individual’s strife is seen as providing a valuable critical standpoint for assaying structural violence that those who have not been subjected to it largely lack.

Further, it is incontrovertible that the tenured professor pulling in $120,000 and the low-wage contingent faculty member teaching at multiple universities just to survive inhabit very different worlds which color their participation in union campaigns. Acknowledge that. There should be serious effort to reduce or mitigate the effects of those power relations in internal decision-making, but also through more intense focus on defending the most vulnerable of those represented, by fighting to guarantee those at the bottom a living wage and decent working conditions comparable to what those at the top enjoy.

Finally, we would be remiss to ignore the effects on human affects associated with the arrangements and injustices detailed above. Feeling estrangement from individuals and society writ large while simultaneously longing for intimacy is a paradoxical phenomenon more pervasive than you might think.

We dismiss individual’s desires for intimate relations and neglect a person’s need for the touch and caress of another human body at our own loveless, hapless peril. The widespread anger and frustration present in the population – rightfully attributed, in the main, to the pains of economic insecurity – also surely stem in at least some small way from the unsatisfied state of Eros under prevailing conditions.

The libido languishes because there exists too few opportunities for authentic sociality which could lead to meaningful sexuality.

The May 2014 shooting in Isla Vista, California near UC Santa Barbara, and the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon this past October sadly attest to how alienation and related sexual frustrations, combined with misogynistic culture, can produce people capable of carrying out horrific acts. The male shooter in each case was upset about still being a virgin and not having a girlfriend. To understand the rage of the shooters it is imperative we treat those frustrations as real and unearth their sources and genesis. It also does not take a trained Freudian psychoanalyst to see schadenfreude at work, a repressive desublimation enacted by the shooters to experience a semblance of sexual gratification through the suffering of those they shot.

As I noted in my 2014 article for ROAR Magazine, focusing on the Isla Vista shooting, there are multiple valid concerns to raise to address this problem. But what is conspicuously missing from most discussions is a real acknowledgement of how human needs and desires are systematically denied by dominant socioeconomic arrangements and how the experiences of alienation, atomization and isolation related to those arrangements reinforce a painful, frustration-generating existence.

In addition to struggling for social and economic justice so as to displace the relations of domination that produce not just commodities, but also people whose actions reflect that foundation of domination, unions and organizations should thus help create spaces for a prefigurative, affective politics to emerge. That is, more militant actions are needed to organize and defend sites for forging bonds of love and trust to pre-figure the kind of people and social relations we would like to see replace the dehumanizing and anti-libidinal sort that are too common today. Establishing in incipient form now that freer world to be realized later thus implies changing, if only sometimes in small ways, our existing material conditions. That can lead to quite different sensuous experiences, which in turn can birth the different ways of perceiving, understanding and loving in the world capable of catalyzing greater social transformation.

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He taught two media studies classes in the Department of Communication at California State University San Marcos during the fall 2015 semester. He has been a member of several unions, including Graduate Assistants United, the California Faculty Association, UFCW Local 135, and the Industrial Workers of the World. While a Graduate Assistant at SIUC, he served as steward for his college and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. He was a long-time member of the GAU Communications Committee. He regularly contributed to the GAU website and newsletter. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.



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