On the Absurdity of…(Youth Studies)

By Professor Peter Kelly, RMIT

The human condition, for Kafka, is well beyond tragic or depressed. It is “absurd.” He believed that the whole human race was the product of one of “God’s bad days.” There is no “meaning” to make sense of our lives…

Kafka’s disciple, the playwright Samuel Beckett, put it well: the writer “has nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”…

Albert Camus’s opening proposition in his best-known essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” is that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” It echoes Kafka’s bleak aphorism: “A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.” Why not, when life is pointless? Camus’s essay pictures the human condition in the mythical figure Sisyphus, doomed for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, only for it to fall down again. Pointless. Only two responses are feasible in the face of man’s Sisyphean fate: suicide or rebellion…

It was Camus’s comrade in philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre, who perceived, most clearly, what drastic things Kafka had done to fiction’s rule book. Generically, as Sartre wrote in a digression in his novel Nausea (1938), the novel presumes to makes sense, fully aware that life doesn’t make sense. This “bad faith” is its “secret power.” Novels, said Sartre, are “machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world.” They are necessary, but intrinsically dishonest. What else do we have in life other than the “spurious meanings” we invent?

Excerpt from A Little History of Literature, John Sutherland


The Absurdity of Youth Studies?

Youth Studies, at least in the more orthodox, mainstream versions of this academic field, invests heavily in the authenticity of young people. Invests heavily in the authentic character of young people’s experience – of their lives, and their understanding of their lives. Human lives lived and experienced in their inherent mystery, opacity, complexity, contradiction, ambivalence, pain and hurt, joy and pleasure. First dimension of the Absurd.

Invests heavily in the authentic character of young people’s voice. Invests heavily in young people’s capabilities to think about, think on, consider, rationalise, articulate their experience – in all of its inherent mystery, opacity, complexity, contradiction, ambivalence, pain and hurt, joy and pleasure. Second dimension of the Absurd.

Invests heavily in the capabilities of the youth studies researcher, employing any number of the techniques, the approved knowledge practices, of a governmentalised social and behavioural science, to provoke, incite, encourage, cajole and capture the authentic voice and experience of young people in a heavily choreographed, stage managed and approved qualitative and/or quantitative, structured, semi-structured, un-structured, empowering, participative, objective, research encounter. Third dimension of the Absurd.

Invests heavily in the capability of the youth studies researcher to construct accounts of these encounters that render the authentic voice and experience of young people intelligible, analysable, interpretable, translatable, authentic in ways that conform to the logics, the values and norms, the rules of the genre (film, video, audio, book, article, Tweet, feed), in ways that also conform to demands for quality and impact. Fourth dimension of the Absurd.

Invests heavily in the promise that these accounts, these abstract, institutionalised, rationalised renderings of the authentic voices and experiences of young people, will not only circulate and translate in networked knowledge flows – in ways that reflect their quality and their potential for impact – but that in these networked flows key stakeholders, key influencers – wherever such figures reside – will encounter these renderings and become knowledgeable about the authentic voice and experience of young people in ways that are significant and innovative, in ways that will produce national benefit, and/or contribute to the strategic priorities of diverse and influential stakeholders. Fifth dimension of the Absurd.

Invests heavily in the promise that this quality, impact, significance, innovation, national benefit will transform the logics of a globalised, neo-Liberal capitalism that seeks to privatise, monetise, commodify all that is possible in the pursuit of capital accumulation, that makes and remakes the world in an endless cycle of production, exploitation and destruction, and in which young people, their families and communities attempt to fashion a life. Sixth dimension of Absurd.

Invests heavily in the promise that if young people’s lives seem little changed by the last 40 years of a more sophisticated, contemporary youth studies, then it is because we just need to develop better ways of identifying, capturing, analysing, interpreting, cataloging, curating, circulating the authentic voices and experiences of young people. Seventh dimension of the Absurd.


This is why Youth Studies is Absurd. But don’t let that stop us doing it!

Note 1:                 Youth Studies is no less, no more, Absurd than any of the other social and behavioural sciences. It just happens to be the Absurdity I trade in, and what might be of interest is whether or not you recognise in this characterisation of the Absurd, the Absurd in what it is that you do.

Note 2:                 The influences here are many and long troubling, but were given a contemporary, temporal character in drafting Three Notes on a Political Economy of Youth, Australian Research Council grant application assessments, Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) planning and discussions, Manchester, London Bridge, Trump, the Capitalocene.

Note 3:                 And by an encounter with a ‘long read’ in The Guardian, where the Absurdities of the academic publishing industry, and game, were laid bare by Stephen Buranyi: ‘Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place’.

Note 4:                 Most importantly, the Absurd doesn’t mean that we stop doing something because we recognise that it is Absurd. Or that the doing of something Absurd means that it is of no use, no merit, that it is devoid of purpose, even some meaning. Rather, the recognition of its Absurd character means that we approach the doing of it, or reflect on, or review, or critique the doing of it by others with a less principled, even a less transcendent, ethos. We become both more modest and less sure about the doing of it, and what the doing of it promises.

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