Keywords for the Age of Austerity 24: Sullen

Cheer Up, Dammit!


In a recent report on “entrepreneurship” education at elite colleges–an “innovation arms race”–Natasha Singer in the New York Times shared a few startling examples of the the innovation cult’s creative use of metaphor.

One of these, “moonshot” (as in, “What’s your moonshot?” a slogan used by Rice University’s entrepreneurship program faculty) was particularly grating, partly because of how it celebrates the romance of “risk-taking”  so critical to the entrepreneurial myth--when even I know that the smarter business move is to minimize risk or outsource it onto someone else, not chase it.

The bigger irony of the “moonshot” as a metaphor for entrepeneurial heroism is of course the fact that the actual “moonshot” was a public endeavor, in which a government agency set scientific knowledge to work for the nation (for geopolitically dubious reasons relating to the Cold War, but that’s another story). If the original moonshot was a weapon in the ideological combat with the USSR–and, arguably, a massive waste of valuable resources–these entrepreneurship labs, besides wasting money, also do their own ideological training, teaching students to think of themselves as pliable, “flexible,” precarious future employees. Failures or frustrations, when they encounter them, will stem not from systemic injustices but from a moral deficit–a failure to innovate. See the student quoted in the article, who appears to misunderstand millennial job insecurity as a generational virtue, a willingness not to not only pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, but to do so repeatedly:

“To be honest, our generation is no longer interested in doing one thing for the rest of our lives,” said Mijin Han, a senior at Rice with an English major and a business minor focused on entrepreneurship. “Our generation is interested in learning different things, and if the environment does not provide it, we want to jump out and take a risk.”

The problem is not just that education is vocational here, because there’s nothing wrong with vocational education per se, nor is “critical thinking” or moral education or whatever you want to call it necessarily un-vocational anyway. Rather, it is the way “academic entrepreneurship” encourages students and others to see education,  a public service subsidized to great extent by the people, as a publicly-funded adjunct of private business, useful for research, development, and employee training. Lesson number 1 of entrepreneurship class: Why take a financial risk when you can just outsource it to someone else?

I don’t know much about the intellectual content of such programs, though I have spent enough time reading “innovation” books to guess that it is minimal. I also don’t know how much practical knowledge relevant to business–finance, accounting, etc.–these programs offer. My sense is that besides the vanity of the donors who endow them, “entrepreneurship labs” are probably hasty products of desperation, by students, parents, and the universities themselves. This is an impression encouraged by the bizarre fact that Princeton uses square footage–as in the physical size of its entrepreneurship offices and classrooms–as a metric to evaluate the rigor and quality of the program.


The desperation comes from what the Times article refers to, oddly, as a “sullen job market”:

Ten years ago, it may have sufficed to offer a few entrepreneurship courses, workshops and clubs. But undergraduates, driven by a sullen job market and inspired by billion-dollar success narratives from Silicon Valley, now expect universities to teach them how to convert their ideas into business or nonprofit ventures.

This adjective is typically used in reference to adolescents, and most often boys, as BYU’s Corpus of  Contemporary American English shows. In this most common usage, it refers to “gloomy ill-humour or moody silence,” a stubborn, baleful expression that adults usually find irritating. “Depressed” is a serious and clinical description, where someone who is “sullen” should just cheer the hell up.

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“handsome unshaven man with beard and handlebar moustache smoking cigarette looking forward with sullen face”: Pictures of this guy, for some reason, are the most common result for “sullen” on Shutterstock

The word is used occasionally in an economic or political context, with hints of its typically teenage associations. For example, despite the country’s prosperity and the forthcoming Euro 2008 soccer tournament, the Financial Times reported in 2007 that “the mood of Austrians is remarkably sullen right now.” And in 2014, the Wall Street Journal described the electorate’s tendency to vote against incumbents with the headline, Sullen Voters Set to Deliver Another Demand for Change.” ABC News gave the game away a bit in 1991 when it reported, that “joviality in Jerusalem contrasted sharply with the sullen silence in the occupied territory.”

In this Times piece, however, there isn’t quite the same condescension or racism as in these three examples–the job market for college graduates is poor, and it’s not only whiny teens, or infantilized nationalities, who think so. You could argue that the reporter is using the obsolete, somewhat poetic meaning of sullen as “dismal” or “melancholy,” referring to immaterial things, as in Byron’s

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Byron, “The Prisoner of Chillon”

 …but probably not. More likely it is a sort of back-formation from “depression”–as in economic depression–which many think of now as a psychological metaphor for the economy, rather than a literal synonym for a “lowering” of trade. The word’s psychological meaning is preobably the biggest association it now has, after all, besides the capital-D Depression. Note, again, all the economic metaphors that draw on individual bodies and psyches, despite economists’ pretensions to dispassionate empiricism–“vigorous” and “robust” markets, “markets” that react to the news calmly, pessimistically, or my favorite, “skittishly,” as if the markets are irrational paranoiacs or stupid dogs barking at a thunderstorm.

But economic slumps were called “depressions” because they were a “lowering in quality, vigour, or amount” of trade, not because the economy was depressed, like a person might be.  The job market becomes “sullen” because it seems sluggish and obstinate, and needs to perk up and figuratively clean its room–a “sullen” economy isn’t nearly as serious as a “depressed” one. But this distinction gets at one of the defining characteristics of the moralism of austerity: economic (and other kinds of) depression is not only apolitical, it is a moral failing of those who suffer from it. A “sullen economy,” and those just entering it, just need to cheer the hell up.

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