In doing research on the whole question of open-plan offices for academics, I have come across an enormous amount of material which exposes the problems across all sectors and globally of the open-plan workplace. A particularly well-titled article by Oliver Burkeman appeared in The Guardian in November 2013: Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell

There is also an excellent and instructive segment on Open-plan on the science program Catalyst which was broadcast by the Australian national broadcasting channel, the ABC in October 2014

Articles of note (there are others I have not listed here) which apply specifically to the academic workplace include a literature review and two excellent research papers:

The Future Academic Workspace: A literature review This paper was published in February 2014 by the international Architecture firm Hassell. It doesn’t argue one way or the other but the conclusions are more than clear.


Academic Staff Consultative Committee Issues Discussion Paper: Open Plan Office Space (Academic Staff) by Associate Professor Suzanne Ryan at the University of Newcastle in NSW, Australia, published 8 December 2014.


The open-plan academy: space, control and the undermining of professional identity by Chris Baldry (University of Stirling, UK) and Alison Barnes (Macquarie University, Australia), Work Employment & Society, April 2012 vol. 26 no. 2 228-245 doi: 10.1177/0950017011432917

I was particularly interested by this de-identified comment, included in the second article above, from an academic who has been subjected to this process at a Scottish university:

We then had a number of focus groups with the architects, and the architects talked about what we need for our workplace and we were very clear that our offices were not just tiny cells that we sat and worked in on our own but they were where students came, they were where we could be found, they were where we kept stuff. They were, you know, our basic home… we explained it very, very clearly and the architects were very, very good. And the architects basically came to a feeling that we needed individual offices, but they are stuck between a rock and hard place ‘cos the university doesn’t want to pay for them. (Glenlivet #1)

Academics spend years – decades – building their careers often across the world and across several universities. Their office is their one home point in this peripatetic existence. The university is where their mail is sent to, where their email address is located, and their office is where they spend long hours reflecting on their research, engaged in frustrating administrative tasks, where people know where to find them, where they meet students and colleagues. It is also where they store the tools of their trade, often purchased at their own expense, not the institution’s: valuable research collections of books and papers, teaching materials, student work and specialised computing equipment.

Academics don’t see themselves as 9 to 5 workers, their core identity is usually attached to the kind of work they do. This, of course, is a hangover – no matter how dubious – from the identification of the academic and the medieval cleric and the notion of ‘vocation’. The attack on the academic office in this context, is not just an attack on professional identity, it is an attack on the academic’s very notion of home.

I just came across this interesting passage in an article by Dave Hickey on The Brooklyn Rail discussing his experiences teaching French theory.

[…] since the texts we read were written in French and being read in French or translation, there are some eccentricities of the French language that need to be acknowledged. First, the standard English vocabulary is about 900,000 words. The standard French vocabulary is about 100,000 words, so French words aren’t surrounded with garlands of synonyms and adjectives. Each word does a lot of work in French, so it is possible to write a sentence in French in which the same word appears four times and means something different every time. American translators, sadly, thanks to the New Yorker, are fearful of iteration, and identical French words blossom into bouquets of synonyms. Americans fall back on synonyms to avoid iteration and this blurs meaning and euphony. It stains the architecture of the sentences. So English translations, with few exceptions, distort the text, and the French is very meticulous. So we should return to the Renaissance practice of the paragone. We go back and forth from one text to another, from one language to another. Add into this the fact that American translators invariably try to make these theorists into liberals, and you have a built-in moral paradox that can’t be redacted.

I was interested by the numerical difference between English and French vocabulary he cites. I’m not sure whether Hickey is suggesting here that the same word needs to be used in translation each time. Because of the diversity of meaning of single words in French, using the same word in every instance doesn’t always work. One needs to look carefully at the other surrounding words in order to give the word the right feel in English.

This doesn’t apply to all words. If we are considering Foucault’s work, for example, he often uses a very precise technical vocabulary – and some words do indeed need to be translated with the one term in English in order to provide continuity for readers in English. One word that might qualify here is ‘dispositif’ to which Foucault attributes a precise meaning. This word has been confusingly translated in a number of ways in English. The word – which is not an uncommon one – used by another French author, however, would be entirely susceptible to translation in a number of ways.

Not all French theorists are as precise as Foucault. Hélène Cixous, for instance, is very hard to pin down and translation of her work needs to be very creative. It is not simply a matter of differences in the respective sizes of vocabularies. The structure of French sentences is very different from the structure of English sentences. French sentences can be very long and complex with many conjunctions and gendered pronouns and the phrase order is often different. These sentences need to be shortened, reorganised and additional nouns inserted when rendered in English translation to make for an elegant and clear style in English.

Hickey’s point about Americans turning these radical theorists into ‘liberals’ is an interesting one (in the American sense of the term presumably. See the Political Compass site for a useful discussion on this). Certainly, the kind of debates and problems Americans conduct around the works of French theorists often seem to be at odds with the debates that interest commentators in Europe and elsewhere.

The university I am located at is planning to demolish buildings which currently house staff in my faculty and build a new building with open-plan offices for academic staff. We can’t stop the demolition, but hopefully we can stop the open-plan design. In the meantime, I thought this might be a good occasion to post a few relevant passages from Foucault from Discipline and Punish

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

The camp is the diagram of a power that acts by means of general visibility. For a long time this model of the camp or at least its underlying principle was found in urban development, in the construction of working-class housing estates, hospitals, asylums, prisons, schools: the spatial ‘nesting’ of hierarchized surveillance. The principle was one of ’embedding’ (`encastrement’). The camp was to the rather shameful art of surveillance what the dark room was to the great science of optics.

A whole problematic then develops: that of an architecture that is no longer built simply to be seen (as with the ostentation of palaces), or to observe the external space (cf. the geometry of fortresses), but to permit an internal, articulated and detailed control – to render visible those who are inside it; in more general terms, an architecture that would operate to transform individuals: to act on those it shelters, to provide a hold on their conduct, to carry the effects of power right to them, to make it possible to know them, to alter them. Stones can make people docile and knowable. The old simple schema of confinement and enclosure — thick walls, a heavy gate that prevents entering or leaving — began to be replaced by the calculation of openings, of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies. (pp. 170-1)

This infinitely scrupulous concern with surveillance is expressed in the architecture by innumerable petty mechanisms. These mechanisms can only be seen as unimportant if one forgets the role of this instrumentation, minor but flawless, in the progressive objectification and the ever more subtle partitioning of individual behaviour. The disciplinary institutions secreted a machinery of control that functioned like a microscope of conduct; the fine, analytical divisions that they created formed around men an apparatus of observation, recording and training. How was one to subdivide the gaze in these observation machines? How was one to establish a network of communications between them? How was one so to arrange things that a homogeneous, continuous power would result from their calculated multiplicity? (pp. 173-4)

Discipline makes possible the operation of a relational power that sustains itself by its own mechanism and which, for the spectacle of public events, substitutes the uninterrupted play of calculated gazes. Thanks to the techniques of surveillance, the ‘physics’ of power, the hold over the body, operate according to the laws of optics and mechanics, according to a whole play of spaces, lines, screens, beams, degrees and without recourse, in principle at least, to excess, force or violence. It is a power that seems all the less ‘corporal’ in that it is more subtly `physical’. (pp. 176-7)

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, (A. Sheridan, Trans.), New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1975).

It would appear that ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO for short) is raging out of control in our societies. There has been a lot of discussion about the way this is fueled by social media, but less discussion about the way it is fueled by advertising and rampant consumerism. The perfect gadget/smart phone is always just about to be released. The perfect couch or mattress is just one more hour of research away…

A few links

Can we break free from the fear of missing out? A well informed and interesting article on the problem.

How to buy the most sustainable couch ever A fantastic blog post about ‘chronic couch commitment phobia’.

Fighting FOMO I particularly liked this passage:

Do not mistake the onscreen gallery of glee for a wonderful real life that is somehow passing you by. The human experience depicted by the media is never the whole truth — and often an outright lie.

The whole truth is that most of us spend enormous portions of our time looking for our car keys while suspecting there’s something biochemically wrong with us. The whole truth is that today, plenty of us will spend hours trying unsuccessfully to muster the energy to bathe — hours that will be memorialized in neither pictures nor words. The whole truth is that if you could trade places with the people who give you the most raging cases of FOMO, you’d probably find out they’re really, really tired.

Research to be continued on this topic…


Shoot the Sun Down (see interview with the director David Leeds on Refracted Input) has now been remastered in high definition, DVD and Blu-ray. This special 35th anniversary release was made available on November 14 2013. For more information and background about the film, please visit the SHOOT THE SUN DOWN Facebook page.

See also David Leed’s blog A Husk of Meaning

The new Australian government has little time for what it calls the “increasingly ridiculous” research grants being allocated by the Australian Research Council. This has happened before in Australian politics and as in the previous instance the targets are humanities research. As it is, humanities research attracts only a very small percentage of overall research funding from the Australian Research Council which allocates the money.

Unfortunately all of this does nothing but confirm a problem of long date in Australian culture, namely a pervasive anti-intellectualism and a short sighted focus on the purely pragmatic. Serious lack of funding to the higher education sector is in line with this cultural tendency. It is important to note of, course, that problems on this front are not uniquely Australian – but some would argue that intellectuals have to work harder for cultural and social respect in the Australian context than they do in a number of other countries.

Paul Redding reflects in The Guardian Newspaper (17th September 2013) on the uses of philosophy in the context of recent statements by Australian Coalition MP Jamie Briggs. Paul Redding’s work in the history of ideas and philosophy was one of the recent targets.

Philosophy is not a ‘ridiculous’ pursuit. It is worth funding

An extract:

“As a first, crude attempt, I’ll describe philosophical work as work with and on “concepts”. Philosophers are concerned with concepts in the same rigorous sort of way that, say, a pathologist is concerned with diseases, or a mathematician with numbers. […]

Concepts are not the contents of so-called thought-bubbles. They are the hinges or links of reasoning processes. They describe those aspects of thought that enables it to make the right connections: connections with the rest of the world; with other thoughts; and with actions. I use the word “right” here to indicate the possibility of getting these connections wrong.

Looked at this way, a concern with concepts can seem important indeed. To recycle an idea from Aristotle, it’s the capacity for conceptual thought that allows us to reason and act on the basis of reasons, and not just react to environmental stimuli. That we all work with concepts at some level allows us to exercise reason and act freely—to be more than mere bundles of conditioned responses. Concepts are what make us distinctively us.”

chabotPascal Chabot, Global burn-out. Paris: Presses universitaires de France (PUF), 2013

I was so impressed by the arguments detailed in this review by Stéphanie Favreau of a new book by Pascal Chabot that I am posting up a quick translation. These ideas tie in extremely well with my own observations and sentiments in relation to the current situation in the higher education sector as well as other sectors. Chabot provides a very useful analytical framework to help understand and gain some distance from what is currently occurring. I am looking forward to reading his book.

You can find the original review in French on the nonfiction.fr site

Global burn-out : Syndrome of an ideology of the absurd

The Cholera of modern times

Attention must be drawn first of all, to the sleek and precise style of this book: a book which allows the various elements that make up the heart of that complex and multifactorial phenomenon which is burnout, to be distinguished. The reader will also be surprised by the first pages of the book which are like reading a novel. The detailed description of this woman who suddenly burst into tears at the wheel of his car, stopped in the emergency lay by on a highway is indeed reminiscent of some scenes from the The Horseman on the roof where Giono depicts emptied bodies, distorted by cholera, their disease oozing from every pore. We see a similarity in style but also perhaps more fundamentally, it is tempting to see burn-out as the cholera of modern times.

Contemporary acedia

To better define burnout, the author first proposes a quick overview of the history of the notion. We learn that if the contemporary psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Freudenberger was the first to introduce this term into medical language, there are much older traces of this phenomenon in quite another domain. Thus the rapprochement with the acedia that affected the most devoted of monks and other theologians is particularly well-chosen insofar as it illustrates the paradoxical nature of burnout, namely the fact that it is the most fervent defenders of a cause who eventually exhaust themselves through their very dedication. Acedia for the religious “is the Our ​​Fathers which can no longer be uttered, the forgotten Hail Marys, the genuflections that one doesn’t get up from”. In the same way, according to Freudenberger’s observations, it is the doctor or nurse who, one fine morning, after having believed for so long in the value of their commitment, simply cannot get up and go to work.

If there has been so much discussion around burnout today, it is because it no longer affects just those in the caring professions working at the bedside of those, which an ideology that we will look at later on, defines as “weak links”. But it affects the very pillars of the liberal system, “the meritocratic battlers, the heroes of rewarded effort”. If burnout is of concern, it is it because it represents a “challenge to dominant values: it generates new atheists in relation to techno-capitalism”.

Mechanisms of the absurd

To try and explain this paradox, Pascal Chabot distinguishes three characteristics of our postmodern era which are of course in practice all intertwined.

Burnout is perfectionism which has run out of steam. Global economic development is largely based on the ideology of the self-made man. In this archetype which characterises liberalism, the individual is encouraged to transcend him or herself chasing the mirage that he or she will reach full self-realisation through work. In short, professional success has replaced salvation. What gives such a life its zest, is that given the best places are rare, you have to elbow your way through the crowds to win. Engaged in spite of themselves in this competition, individuals then throw themselves into the melee and sacrifice an entire part of their own person on the altar of work. Hence it is not enough, once the career has been set in motion, to maintain cruising speed, more and more has to be done because the competition never sleeps and profit waits for no man. Perfectionism in the service of such an abyss is transformed into a veritable regulatory nightmare.

Burnout is also humanism which has run out of steam. Indeed, to keep up the pace, more direct means accompany the race for recognition. Every enterprise worthy of its name, thus has at its disposal two major components: a human resources department and a management team. Of course, the human resources department is an essential element for the survival of the company, but what the author criticises here is the slippage from a figurative sense of the term to a sense that transforms the formula into a true oxymoron. In effect, in the postmodern era, “the human is a resource: which disgorges its best energies, its sweat, its time. It is, in every way, supernumerary, and therefore replaceable”. Human resources are therefore responsible for identifying the best stallions for the line up in the race for profit, and also for the letting go of the lame and other washouts while the management team deals with those who are still on track. To give us an idea of the completely dead souls that such a system generates, the author gives the floor to the manager himself: “I have fulfilled my mission. I managed by terror, I singled out the weak links. There were indeed suicides, but what could I do?”

Because there is necessarily a hidden motor in this infernal machine, burnout can also be defined as a race for recognition. In effect, “the human, who, constrained by necessity, does violence to his selfish needs, wants to see his or her sacrifice recognised”. He or she is willing to sacrifice themselves, but a minimum of recognition must be given in return. The height of cynicism is that it is precisely because they have the all too human feeling that people are grateful to them that they will persevere in their efforts. On this point, Pascal Chabot also cites Axel Honneth who understood very well that “recognition can be an ideological weapon with which, under the guise of flattery, individuals can be confined to a subordinate function in order to prevent them from escaping”.

What burnout reveals through three characteristics is that basically not even those most dedicated to their work are dupes of the non-sense of service which taps their forces. Burnout means that flattery and smiles are no longer sufficient to hide the vertigo of the logic of profit. Only sensed, not explicitly spoken or thought, absurdity is lived and somatized. “Bodies are smart. They sometimes know more about our needs than our blinkered psyches”. Burnout tells us that we cannot ignore the need that everyone has to have time for themselves. No number of fetishes can help, we have to live.

If this phenomenon has come to undermine the body, it is also perhaps because there is no space to express the absurd: culture also having entered in effect into the race for profit. In this sense one can only observe “the false promises of the knowledge economy”. Capitalist logic, which can thus be described as absurd insofar as nothing seems to be able to assign limits to profit, this logic which sustained enterprise, has now spread its tentacles into the private lives of individuals to the extent that leisure itself and any kind of search for meaning have become profitable. You are sold everything right down to recipes for happiness.

What burn-out reveals, is an uprooted form of existentialism where “there is an immense tribe of people who feel with ready-made feelings, […] think with ready-made ideas, […] who want with ready-made wills”.

Ideological roots

To better conceal this incendiary spread through the postmodern world, some claim that burn-out applies only to “the weak” and other “maladjusted individuals”. In short, they take refuge behind that other ideological weapon which is the pseudo-Darwinian argument of the survival of the fittest which necessarily involves collateral damage. “But this is not the right axiom. In reality, humans are plastic beings par excellence.” Humans adapt to new situations and ethnological museums are bulging with the remains of this human diversity. In every civilization besides, we find a form of spirituality and culture which responds to other requirements besides those of simple adaptation to the environment. This is because adapting, controlling one’s environment is one thing, “but one must also in addition realise oneself”. Humans are those beings who needs to find meaning in what they do with their life, they need to project themselves towards a horizon that transcends everyday concerns thereby giving them confidence in themselves. When the logic of the absurd ends up covering every base, the system goes into crisis.

Thus “humanity groans, almost crushed under the weight of the progress it has made”. Technical advances that were meant to liberate are now in the service of a logic of production which is cut off from any sensible relation to reality. The work by means of which people should be able to free themselves from the grip of nature to devote themselves to “more interesting metaphysical and more caring purposes,” has become a trap that no one is able to avoid and that nothing seems to be able to undo.

Finally, in relation to this cult of performance, which has its roots in the patriarchal model, another remark by the author deserves to be pointed out. The issue of burnout takes on a particular dimension when it comes to women. Numerous cases occur in the area of professional care and education – positions occupied primarily by women. Mechanically therefore, burnout most often affects those who are white-collar battlers. A double trap opens up here. The cliché is that women turn to these professions because they are naturally gentler, more compassionate, more dedicated. In reality, it is history that has shaped this myth and “this naturalism is controlled by more or less understood corporate interests”. But the tragedy of this situation is that somehow women have allowed themselves to be caught in this trap, that it adheres to this discourse and interprets their behaviour in the light of this reading.

The author’s emphasis on the issue of “Women’s burnout” is interesting insofar as it may, to some extent, also illuminate the overall situation. Indeed, in the same way that no-one is responsible for anyone else’s situation but nonetheless to some degree contributes to the survival of patriarchal values, no postmodern individual is responsible for anybody else’s situation even though he or she continually endorses it. It is of course tempting to apportion blame but in reality everyone is “half victim, half guilty, like everyone else”.

Psychologists say that burn-out is an endogenous reaction, sociologists that it is an exogenous phenomenon. But “this is where the philosophical approach which is relational, enriches the debate. For philosophy, in the diseases of civilization and the troubles which mirror it, it is the relationship between the individual and the social which is the problem. It takes two to build a relationship”. Of course both types of factors may be intertwined but burnout is not visited on the individual from above, neither does it come up from below, it appears on this edge of existence where the individual strives to achieve as much as take in relation to his or her environment. If burnout indeed characterizes a logic of the absurd it is in that it corresponds to some extent to the Camus’ famous definition: “The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human appeal and the unreasonable silence of the world”.

Towards a technological pact

To take the first steps towards eliminating “the burn-out machine” the author proposes two things.

Firstly, we need to seriously “consider reflecting on creating penalties for personnel management techniques which use fear and bullying as strategies”.

Next, we need to envisage the development of a pact or “technological contract” which as a regulatory ideal puts logics that have no other ends than themselves back in their place.

The analysis of burnout shows that there are two possible paths of evolution. On the one hand, there is the path willingly embarked on by the post humanists. To overcome the shortcomings of modern man, they invent technologies capable of making a machine that doesn’t call on “the bureau of metaphysical claims”. On the other hand, there are humans with all their flaws, or rather a vision of humans in which the need for time and the search for meaning are essential conditions for which “there is no solution because there is no problem, but only life which continues on through the generations and which is the raw material for all humanisms”.


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