As scholars and investigators of conspiracy theory communities have noted, people who cling to these ideas long after they have been demonstrated to be factually false tend to do so for two reasons. One, because the conspiracy theory links them to a community of supportive, like-minded “others” among whom they feel a deep sense of belonging. And two, because it allows them to maintain an identity as the kind of person who knows and understands how the world “really works”.
I would argue that the unhappy academics were creating and adding to what I described in my thesis as affective swirls of discontent, and that they were doing this as a means of bonding, or collective self-comforting. Anthropologist Nigel Thrift (2004), in discussing spatial affect, might argue that these swirls gather momentum, affecting the moods and feelings of others as they circulate. As they get translated into different, perhaps more durable contexts — such as via technologies like online chat and email — the affect begins to bed down into the objects (such as emails, or policies), as well as into the humans, strengthening the network and the feelings of discontent further. This is where collective trauma may become an apt description.
At the end of a day of academic work, you may not want to talk to anybody else, and giving yourself that option is a form of self-care. But that kind of self-care doesn’t help you to play well with others, so it becomes a vexed choice - be a good academic, or a good wife and mother.
Are we seeing a shift away from explicitly imagining alternatives to the status quo? Are we even still capable, as a society, of envisaging these alternative imaginaries? There is a ‘discursive regime’ - ie. a way of speaking and discussing ideas that is so pervasive as to become inescapable - at play in discussions of universities (and indeed, the world at large) that precludes the consideration of alternatives to neoliberalisation, marketisation and capitalism more broadly. But systematic application of the imagination can create ideas, and “ideas can change reality, for ideas can turn into reasons for action, which in turn can become causes of change.” (Barnett, 2013, p. 7).