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Chapter 1: Neoliberal Arts and the 21st Century University

Page history last edited by Stefano Harney 10 years, 6 months ago

An Introduction

 

There are a great many things that students learn from their instructors in college, but one area where they may exceed their professors is in their assessment of the state of higher education. They do not know, necessarily, what the University has been or what it might become, but my own experience as a teacher suggests that they know very well what it is now.

 

To provide a little bit of background, I teach at Siena Heights University, a small, Catholic, liberal arts college in a small town in Michigan. Originally founded by the Adrian Dominican Sisters in 1919 as a college for women, the school became co-educational in 1969, and has since expanded to include satellite campuses throughout the region to provide degrees for working adults. The residential college provides a liberal arts education with a strong professional focus, primarily to working-class, first-generation, traditional-age college students from the region. While we attract many students through specialized degrees (business and education are the largest programs), a key component of who we are is our liberal arts identity. We offer students broad coursework in reading, writing, philosophy, history, math, science, social science, the arts, and theology—in the hopes that students will become well-rounded, critical thinkers with a strong sense of social responsibility. So, when I say that students understand the state of the University, I mean, more accurately, that my working-class, Michigan students seem to have a good grasp on the current function of higher education.

 

Why do I think this? I will begin with a dramatization: Every summer, the school assigns a “summer reader” for all incoming, first-year students. In the fall, our new students meet in small groups during orientation week to discuss the novel; I am one of the faculty members who helps facilitate those discussions. While some years and some books seem to get better results than others, there are always a few things I can count on. Some students have read the book and are interested in making a strong first impression. Other students have not read the book and appear eager to make that clear to the group. The rest seem to hide in the middle—some hiding the fact that they have read, and others hiding the fact that they haven’t. I always walk away a bit discouraged by the knowledge that many people enrolling in college do not bother to prepare for their first meeting with a professor. I am a little angry that some students even seem to look around to their peers for approval after unashamedly confessing, “I didn’t read it.” I’m not so much angry at the particular student. I am angry at an educational system and a society that teaches a significant portion of its youth, intentionally or unintentionally, that reading is laughable—so laughable that you can apply for admission into a University, sit down in your first class, and expect your peers to celebrate your public profession of willful ignorance. My guess is that this attitude is repeated at Universities large and small across the United States, with the exception of some of our more elite schools.

 

When I ask the students who chose not to read the novel, “Well, why are you in college? You know, you can avoid reading for free.” Typically, the answer involves either sports or jobs. And at this point, I recognize that my desired responses (“I love learning!” or “I want to change the world!”) are simply out of step with the practical pressures that students face on a daily basis. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent report, Michigan’s unemployment rate is the highest in the United States (12.6% versus 8.5% nationwide, but this does not include those who have stopped seeking employment). Michigan, the home of the United States’ automobile industry, has suffered over the years due to a number of factors. Historically, the automobile industry provided high-wage, union jobs which required little, if any, education beyond high school. Competition from foreign manufacturers has chipped away at the dominance of the U.S. auto industry and outsourcing has further decreased the number of jobs offered by domestic industry. As a result, working class Michigan has seen its fortunes plummet. As workers who are able to do so seek jobs in other states and increasingly deserted cities suffer from declining property tax revenues, many regions of the state are faced with ever greater concentrations of poverty. The crisis facing working people in Michigan has provided the perfect prism for the clear assessment of a great many aspects of the state of civilization, particularly the consequences of neoliberal ideology.

 

According to David Harvey, neoliberalism is the idea that “the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market” (3). In other words, neoliberalism is a revised view of classical liberalism (the notion that freedoms like the right to own property, speak freely, vote, etc. would lead to the greatest good). Neoliberalism reduces classical liberalism to a mere reflection of free markets, where, as the theory goes, freedom is cultivated and finds its purest expression. The general consequence of this is a diminishing role for culture as a determining force and an increased preoccupation with financial indicators as a barometer for a society’s overall health, as evidenced in the uninhibited expansion of consumer culture and the increasing tendency of individuals to seek expression through the market.

 

Without the cultural structures in place to support “liberal arts learning” as an end in itself and with the economic pressures that place people in survival mode, apathetic (and even anti-) intellectual attitudes are quite predictable. It is understandable that a reasonably “smart” person’s priority in this context might be the need to put bread on the table. The sacrifices my students make, in the form of debt, missed income, spent savings, and family contributions require a pragmatic concern about making money. Their secondary objective is usually to find happiness in those pursuits which are familiar (and increasingly commodified), including family, friends, intoxication, religion, sex, and sports. The problem is not whether or not students have dreams—they have them. The problem is what they dream about—or, more accurately, what our culture dreams for them. Between the incessant utopian offerings of consumer culture and the grim prospects of poverty, the dreams are lucid ones. There is no time to waste on uncertainties and unknowns, yet, every fall, students find themselves sitting in a circle with other students trying to project confidence in a realm that is uncertain and unknown to them. All of this accounts for the divergence between what I want them to say and what they actually say.

 

Though I am dismayed when faced with a student who prefers the neoliberal arts to my idealized liberal arts, these attitudes really shouldn’t surprise me. Aspects of my upbringing help me to relate to the financial preoccupations of my students. Not that I grew up hard. I grew up in sunny southern California, the child of parents who, though separate, loved me very much. Neither went to college, but both wanted it for me. As I grew, my parents’ economic fortunes diverged significantly. My mother married an ambitious small-business owner who was able to provide the sort of stability that my own father wasn’t. My dad, a bartender, eventually found himself aged and unemployed, doing odd jobs and dodging eviction notices. He later moved in with his sister in San Diego and lived with her until becoming partially paralyzed—a consequence of a treatable disease left untreated due to lack of resources.

 

Certain that I would be unable to afford college, I was grateful when I discovered that I was eligible for scholarships and grants. With a generous financial aid package, I was able to move to San Diego to be with my dad, who had found work tending bar part time. I had no idea what I would do or study in college. I only knew that I wanted to get a job, hopefully one which could provide for my dad. One day, as we were thinking through these things, my father told me how he came to be a bartender. While trying to learn a practical trade to please his working-class, immigrant father, he had, in his words, “a nervous breakdown.” By the early 1960s, he abandoned his ambition of becoming an electrician. He took up painting, writing poetry, hanging out at coffee houses, and experimenting with his consciousness. His love of people and culture eventually landed him behind a bar in a blues club. And, though I had been pondering the possibility of getting a responsible degree that could lead me to a nice, steady job with a high salary, my father said that, in spite of all he had been through, nothing was harder than trying to be something he wasn’t. He felt that my financial concerns were clouding my love of life. Shortly after, I declared an English major and threw practicality out the window. But I might never have done it if it weren’t for my father’s advice.

 

In many ways, I had a lot in common with the apathetic students in my summer reader discussion groups. For me, the liberal arts were really the neoliberal arts. The notion of a well-rounded education was fixed in to questions of economic access, and reinforced by my experiences with money. I, who had done nothing in my life to earn it, had been given scholarship money that enabled me to live in a dorm room overlooking manicured lawns, rose gardens, and pacific sunsets. My father, whose life was marked by generosity and an intense appreciation for art, slept on a couch in a room that my aunt used for storage. I played daily with beautiful people who could live lives of leisure (and occasional lawlessness) with little fear of reprisal by parents, society, the law. My dad, who had worked his entire life, had even relatively obvious decisions, like whether or not to go to the doctor, preempted by what he had in his wallet. Eventually, after my dad’s rusty old car was stolen, impounded, and auctioned off while he was in the hospital, I learned to see what San Diego looked like to a poor person in a wheelchair, riding the bus, trying to sort through bills with social workers. This San Diego was radically different from the San Diego of my classmates, pretty people in tight clothes and shiny cars. These contrasts only reaffirmed the “truth” of the neoliberal arts—culture, art, enlightenment, happiness were all tied to the basic question of finance. You didn’t even have to be smart, nice, educated, or good-looking—you just needed money, and then you had culture, access, and esteem.

 

It was only through the sheer power of my father’s example and the force of his character that I was able to critically assess the neoliberal worldview. The cognitive dissonance produced by my awareness of my father’s great humanity alongside the fetishized humanity of the neoliberal order was just too much for me to compute. If I wanted to buy in fully to the doctrines of neoliberalism, I would be forced to see my father as a failure. I might, for some time, try to ignore the contradiction between a dominant culture which glorified the success of the wealthy and my father’s lesson which taught me the virtue of being human but, eventually, an honest person has to choose. Of course, I chose my father’s way. I do not mean to say that there is no place for finance in the service of humanity, but it is always of a lower order and, when push comes to shove, financial concerns must be made to yield for the greater good.

 

My students understand what higher education promises—it promises “success.” And in the 21st century, success refers to specifically to an integrated relationship between the daily life and capitalism, held in place by a career. Those who do not have a career, who are “unsuccessful,” are consigned to a lower tier of existence, characterized by fewer rights and privileges. While success may find representation in many socially valuable signs (a fit body, a manicured mind, a well-planned family, a managed portfolio, and a learned approach to stylish consumption), at the end of the day, these signs are only the symptoms of late-stage capitalist development, when every expression of the self can become an exploitable resource. It is no surprise that this is also the age of reality television—where every behavior from the most sacred to the most profane is opened up to scrutiny and measured via market research—where social media sites and magazines are flooded with quizzes and surveys which answer questions like “Which 80s band are you?” or “What is your sex style?” (I have yet to be presented with an assessment of my “Defecation Style,” so perhaps there are some remaining behaviors which have yet to be fully regulated.) The consequence of all this is that we live in a culture which teaches that success is reflected in signs of care and management (what Foucault calls “governmentality”), but that these signs both emanate from the economic means to pursue them and, in the end, result in economic opportunity. As both an end point and origin for human life, capitalism is elevated to a formidable metanarrative in our neoliberal era. With this in mind, I cannot blame my students for accepting an idea which is represented with such profound consistency. And, if education is about knowledge, I cannot blame them for seeking to become successful by passing through the University.

 

Liberal arts professors have not, as a whole, done much to counter the spirit of the neoliberal arts. Especially in those fields which have not been fully professionalized (such as, art, literature, philosophy, history, and theology), academia is gripped by a competing, but ultimately complimentary, set of ideas—on the deconstructive end, the indeterminacy of meaning, the social construction of reality, and positions of radical doubt. On the constructive end, many of these fields have seen increased professionalism, an obsession with newness, and a weakly critical focus on lifestyle, popular culture, and technological progress. Of course, many of us have moved on from “postmodernism,” but there remain more advanced “post” theories—posthuman, postracial, postfeminist, post-capitalist, post-religious, etc.—which carry on the basic ideas, only with greater focus and sensitivity. Beyond that, an increasing share of undergraduate teaching is done by graduate students, adjunct faculty, and non-tenure-track instructors. This means that many classes are taught by overworked, undercompensated, and tenuously employed teachers, which tends to tip the balance of course content towards standardized materials and automated assessments and away from challenging, heady, and provocative subject matter. Thus weakened, the faculty itself is less able to challenge the administration’s agenda, which always tends to be driven by market concerns. To put it simply, even if the absurd promises of neoliberalism weren’t so pervasive, the sheer lack of compelling ideas about how one ought to live leaves students vulnerable to just about any system of knowledge which can offer some set of stable meanings. Is it any wonder that large numbers of people are willing to dedicate their lives to video games? The admiration of pop stars? Membership in paranoid political movements? The zealous belief in bizarre conspiracy theories? The participation in pyramid schemes? The collection of fast food promotional toys? Indeed, neoliberalism has the uncanny ability to both facilitate the proliferation of such lifestyles and, finally, to appear as the rational alternative to them, at once creating the illness and offering the cure. It affirms the unstable character of value systems and offers the market as the nexus through which these systems can be unified.

 

So when students proclaim that they “don’t read” or argue that they deserve passing grades because they “paid enough tuition,” it might be disheartening, but it isn’t necessarily wrong. It is only our nostalgia and personal bias which that has us convinced that it is.

 

But the question is not what the University is right now. The question is what the University might be. This project aims to address that question.

 

A Proposal

 

Rather than provide an overview of the history of the University, I would like to begin by focusing more specifically on historicizing this University, the one we inhabit today. While I am very interested in the history of, say, the medieval University or Plato’s Academy, the modern University and its association with Enlightenment thought is, for me, the critical model against which the contemporary University is ideally contrasted. The relationship between liberal thought and the mission of the University—as a place where citizens could be educated not only to serve the State, but also to form it and correct it—stands as an apt model to contrast against the contemporary University as the point of purchase for middle class life. In this regard, Bill Reading’s University in Ruins provides an ideal history of the University (and, incidentally, leaves readers at the question of “what the University might be” given its “ruined” state). I would, however, like ultimately to move beyond Reading’s conclusion by taking into consideration various philosophical arguments which have achieved acceptance since his book’s initial publication. In the spirit of the Edu-Factory Manifesto, which calls for “a series of transnational web-based discussions on the condition of the university today,” I hope to engage in timely discussions with multiple participants, which move from critique to possibility, with the hope that our discussions can suggest positive action. These arguments will appear as subsequent chapters in this manuscript.

 

According to Readings, “the modern University has had three ideas: the Kantian concept of reason, the Humboldtian idea of culture, and now the techno-bureaucratic notion of excellence” (Readings 14). The first generation, the Kantian University, was based on the idea that philosophy, the lower faculty, could serve as the common denominator for the higher faculties of theology, medicine, and law. According to Immanuel Kant, the professional fields—which required a great deal of training in tradition and specifics—would benefit by being subject to the processes of rationality. And though Kant himself did not directly advocate democracy, by making authority subject to reason he was concurrently validating the State and citizens, and thus advancing democracy by default.

 

For Wilhelm von Humboldt, the University was meant to serve the idea of “culture.” In this regard, the University was to be “a fusion of process and product that both produced knowledge of culture (in research) and inculcated culture as a process of learning (in teaching)” (Readings 12). Unlike Kant’s ideal University, which was centered on the idea that reason could provide the basis for its order, Humboldt’s concept of culture required a process of enculturation in order for culture’s regulatory power to be felt. The nation was to be both created and sustained in the University. It is this model of the University which served as the basic model for higher education in the postwar period (Readings 7).

 

However, as Readings argues, “the University is becoming a different kind of institution, one that is no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state by virtue of its role as a producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture. The process of economic globalization brings with it the relative decline of the nation-state as the prime instance of the reproduction of capital around the world.” (3) If the University had historically been conceived under Humboldt’s model as inextricably tied to the idea of a national culture then, in an age of declining national identities it is only logical that the University should face an identity crisis, particularly in the “developed” regions of the world.

 

As long as we reflect the attitude that we are here for the accreditation of students, we will treat them as customers, and they will behave as customers. Instead of taking control over their self-education, they will sit and wait to be educated.   And if they do not feel that this education is happening, they will select another product that promises better results, better guarantees. This passivity is a product of consumer culture, but it is also its mode of reproduction.   We can either be trapped in this cycle of meaninglessness and resigned to its reality, or we can strive to imagine it from the outside.

 

However, beyond meaningless accreditation, one can discern some rational purpose for higher education. A new cultural ethos is emerging, one which may very well make use of an institution such as the University to educate subjects into its service. As Readings notes, the end of the Humboldtian University’s historical mission does not simply result in the abandonment of the University’s content, rather the content of education is reformatted to reflect the very practices of global capitalism. He explains, “The so-called center, the nation-state, is now merely a virtual point that organizes peripheral subjectivities within the global flow of capital; it is not a site to be occupied. Hence everyone seems to be culturally excluded, while at the same time almost everyone is included within the global flow of capital.” (Readings 111) As a consequence, the positive expression of the University is in the very corporatist ethos which Readings identifies as “the University of Excellence,” which imagines little purpose beyond converting students into human resources for global capitalism.

 

But, if one approaches from Reading’s critical perspective the boredom, apathy, and resentment experienced by students, one might be heartened to find that students, although they apparently accept the state of affairs, do not seem particularly pleased with them. This could serve as the raw material for a radically new education, provided we take the time to play with its possibilities. That the University can be naively critiqued as an otherwise pointless exercise of pay for accreditation implies that even (perhaps, especially) the most catatonic students have an inkling of a suspicion that the process of education might in some alternate incarnation or universe be more worthwhile. This problem, the one which threatens the institution with irrelevance, is precisely the place where it can be redeemed.   The ruptures in this world are windows into the next.

 

In place of a specific curriculum (as Allan Bloom or Martha Nussbaum suggest, both of whom make passionate arguments for an education based on the “classics,” but for different reasons), we must apply ourselves to the “why” rather than the “how” of education. Rather than implementing a narrative for the sake of expediency, as Neil Postman suggests we ought to do in The End of Education, and instead of concluding that no narrative exists, as Readings does in The University in Ruins, I would like to suggest that a narrative might be uncovered rather than imposed, if we want it, if we look for it, if we work for it. As the rallying cry goes, “Another world is possible!”  

 

To find this narrative, I will take advantage of Culture Machine Liquid Books’ experimental format. To borrow from Gary Hall, the goal is

to begin conceiving a different future for the university: beyond regarding it as trapped by the forces of capitalist neoliberal economics that are increasingly transforming higher education into an extension of business; but also beyond advocating a return to the kind of paternalistic and class bound ideas associated with F.R. Leavis, Matthew Arnold, and John Henry Cardinal Newman that previously dominated the university—ideas that view it in terms of an elite cultural reproduction of a national culture, with all the hierarchies and exclusions around differences of class, race, gender, and ethnicity that implies. (205)

Rather than sketch out an argument for a University that I insist you ought to accept, this book is about the hope that we can find possible meaning and purpose for the University in the current practical and theoretical landscape.   My thought is that, as committed members of an intellectual community, we might be able to enact the very process which we hope to theorize.

 

In pursuit of this end, I propose that we look at a number of contemporary thinkers (which may or may not include Alan Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Bernard Stiegler, Donna Haraway, McKenzie Wark, Michael Hardt, Jurgen Habermas, Antonio Negri, etc.) to hash out some possible “truths” that might be found in education. Of course, it is critical that this project takes into account the work being done by groups like Edu-Factory, EXCO: Experimental College, CSeARCH, and the vast number of journals and institutions which provide forums for the free exchange and production of knowledge. In addition, I suggest that we revisit (and liberally revise) past theorists and critics (who may or may not include Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Rousseau, Kant, Humboldt, Arnold, Leavis, Newman, Dewey, Freire, Lyotard, etc.) in order to carefully consider the traditions that we work under, whether we labor to reproduce these traditions or to destroy them.

 

In keeping with the spirit of Liquid Books, I will leave the future organization of the project open. In part, this is to compensate for the limitations of my experience and gaps in my knowledge. In conventional manuscripts, such bare spots are glaring points of weakness, but here I hope that my deficiencies will be occasions of opportunity. Rather than foreclose trajectories, I hope this manuscript might reveal a multitude of hidden paths. Though I encourage people to give freely to this project, I also want to note that individual contributions will be recognized in the wiki format and that any subsequent print-based derivatives of this manuscript will maintain these references in a form to be determined by this community. A significant component of our exploration will necessarily involve the relationship between the individual and community, the knowledge produced by these aspects of humanity, and the technics through which these relationships and their fruits can be reproduced.

 

For the sake of conversation, I would like to introduce a critical question. We need to engage in debates over the very nature of the one at the center of the University—the student, the citizen, the human being, the person, the subject, the self, the I, the singular, etc. In addition, we will have to explore various interpretations of the many to which this one belongs—the community, the civilization, the species, the network, the state, the other, the we, the multitude, etc. Between these two poles, we will attempt to discover discursive threads which can provide a narrative around which the 21st Century University can be organized.

 

While such an approach to knowledge strains against my training, the greater strain is to carry on teaching as though I have considered none of these things, and to make my living on the backs of students at the very risk of their future happiness.   If a community of scholars believes in nothing beyond perpetuating the inane theatrical traditions of the University to preserve their material and legal supplements (tenure, intellectual freedom, sabbaticals, etc.), then we deserve nothing beyond symbolic gestures in return for our hollow contributions to our communities. If, beneath the pageantry of puffy gowns and pretentious titles, we offer nothing more than the quid pro quo of assessment and certification for money that our students have borrowed at interest, then we deserve less consideration for our labors than loansharks, who are at least honest about their work (and better compensated for it, too). If we can find solidarity with our students in their possible perception that the current state of education is a game and the game is rigged, then we all might play with abandon. If we reckon that the reality (finance) beneath the façade (the University) might itself be a façade, then we are free to explore alternatives to the tedious cycle of anxiety, accreditation, indebtedness, and indenture which robs our students of their future and makes frauds of us all.   If we can imagine a community that, by necessity, reaches beyond the material to place limits around its use and interpretation, we might assert that culture is more than a mere side-effect of finance. If people can learn to transcend the techniques and technologies of anomie which replace love with strategic inequalities and market transactions, we can dream again of a good life, not as a foregone conclusion, but as a philosophical mission.

 

Of course, the problem remains of how one might realize such glittering generalities. We have grown accustomed to expecting such fantastic things in products ranging from dish detergents to University mission statements. But still, we must try, even if the answers are beyond our grasp. And, if, in spite of the tendrils that ensnare our feet—economic impossibilities, postmodernism uncertainties, restrictive traditions, poststructuralist indeterminacies, institutional inertias, biological determinations, linguistic thickets, legal prohibitions—we can stand with our head in the clouds, we can prove that there is something more to be seen than this world of tragedy, where the well-to-do suffer from pandemic depression and everyone else suffers from pandemic dispossession. If we can, even for a split second, imagine the radical potential of a community organized around something other, we can change the world.

 

 

A Possible Chapter :

 

 

Metroversity: the creative city and its outskirts

 

In the last couple of years the idea of the social factory, first developed in Italian workerist thought in the 1970s, has taken on a new and concrete form through the study of the way the university and the city bring together a broad work regime, a development one could call the metroversity.  This metroversity is itself traversed by some key developments, two of which I will highlight here: the rise of governance, and the rise of the business school.

 

For Italian workerists, the idea of the social factory arose to account of the fact that capital no longer needed the walls of the factory to initiate and direct the labour process.  Instead, the factory became dispersed throughout society, if unevenly.[i]  This evident innovation hid its own provocation however.  For workerists what innovates the innovation is what Stevphen Shukaitis called ‘the social energies of insurgency and resistance to capitalism, when turned against themselves and re-incorporated into the workings of state and capital, determine the course of capitalist development.’   Shukaitis continues, ‘ that is to say that capitalism develops not according to its own internal structure logic, but according to how it manages to deal with and utilize the social energies of its attempted negation.’[ii] Business schools act in the university as counter-insurgency archives of these social energies, much as colonial archives did.  In business schools the most common markers of this rise of the social factory, which at the same time register class differences, are the rise of the consultant, and the rise of out-sourcing, where the reproduction costs of labour are thrust back upon labour.  But it is not just that the walls of the factory-state became more porous, as in these examples (after all they had begun that way and remained that way for the majority even during high Fordism.)

 

Because what is important in the notion of the social factory is the idea that more areas of life, and especially private life, become sites of a labour process.  This idea differed in an important respect from other contemporary social readings that emphasized the commodification of more and more areas of life.  For workerists, it was not just that prices were now put on more things, but on more activities.  The difference meant that the idea of the social factory brought not just private things, but private life itself into capitalism.  Because if private activities became priced, became work, then there was no moment of the outside, no moment when something, an idea, an emotion, a work of art, was outside capital and then subsequently captured by being commodified.  Rather, everything that was produced in the social factory was already produced within capitalism.  Life itself was produced in capitalism, and was rendered productive by capitalism.  The care given to a child is not then something that can be bought and sold because of an invasive market, but rather because the carer can be bought and sold and produces a child who can be bought and sold.  This is why, as Kathi Weeks has shown, feminist theory with its attention to the reproduction of life, prefigures and historicizes the idea of the social factory, and subsequently in the work of Leopaldina Fortunati and other feminist theorists, takes the idea of the social factory to its nadir.  And at its nadir, the idea of the social factory does not allow for a nostalgic politics of a time, or a word, or an emotion, outside capitalism to which we might return, or on which we might depend, on in which we might trust.  And yet, because the life that is inside capitalism is, as work, also against capitalism, the social factory is far from a victory for capital, because as we have said this is a provocation to which capital has responded without reversing the order of the initiative, and to this paradox we must return.  (And by the way, this is one way to understand the problematic at the heart of both post-colonial theory, in the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty or Aiwha Ong, and feminist technoscience as in the work of Patricia Clough or Luciana Parisi: capital’s attempt to dissolve or disgorge this life it needs but cannot digest, is, perhaps, the real front of struggle today.  This, and indeed a return to what is in but not of capital, the eternal alien.)

 

But with this understanding of the social factory as a theory about the ubiquity of work in response to the initiatives of self-directed labour, we could go further in our view of business schools for instance and say that observations on the rise of management, about audit societies, or lifestyle brands, or careers of the self, or financialization of the self, are only phenomenal observations of this deeper labour process in the social factory.  This expansion and deepening of work in society throws up all of these phenomena, and the rise of business studies itself can in some ways be understood as a phenomenon of this social factory.  Indeed the current financial crisis can readily be cast in these terms – sub-prime loans were an experiment in putting the poor to work through their houses.  Observers who note that the poor do not have money to repay such loans miss the point of the exercise.  As Harry Cleaver notes, when society adopts the commodity-form, it also adopts the compulsion to work as its primary form of social control.  Deepening the commodity-form through sub-prime loans was an attempt to impose this form of social control still more completely on the poor.  And indeed we could go further here.  We could say that in the wake of welfare to work efforts it became clear that the imposition of work required also the imposition of capitalist time, that is to say debt, in the body of worker.  Indeed if Christian Marazzi is correct to say that this combination of debt and work in the body of the worker is evidence of capital and labour coming closer together, not pulling apart, in that body of living labour, then we could speculate that welfare to work, far from bringing the poor into the discipline of work, left them dangerously close to a pure subjectivation of labour at a moment when this kind of subjectivity is yielding to the more complex control of debt-labour.  At any rate, business scholars pointing to the obscurity and risk of this imposition are pointing only to the surface of things.

 

Still, this is not the end of the story for business studies, not just because it is not the end of the story for the social factory as we have suggested above, but also because it is not the end of the story for the university, the site of business studies.

 

University

 

The Rome-based Edu-Factory Collective has perhaps done more than any configuration in recent years to push forward an analytical debate on the university.  Starting with a sense of the social factory populated by more and more precarious workers, fed by migrant labour, and dominated by affective and cognitive commodities, the Edu-Factory Collective developed an important list mail with scheduled postings by scholars and activists from around the globe discussing the emergence of the university as the engine of a new kind of urban economy.  This urban economy not only exploited immigrants, students, and the flexibilised worker, but specifically it exploited culture, feeling, taste, opinion, and the arts to create new spatial fixes for capital by dispossessing urban neighbourhoods. Entwined with this affective economy were new financial forms for turning these fixes into sources of risk, rather than as in the past sources of security, and new developments in technoscience which like this new financialisation linked this ‘cognitive capitalism’ to scenes of exploitation in the developing world, from pharmaceuticals to agrobusiness.  And as finance worked its way into the home, and biocapitalism worked its way into bodies, the urban economy also came to produce what can only be understood as a heightened sense of feeling, unmatched in its new intensity since Baudelaire and Benjamin wrote about cities.

 

Powering this new urban economy is the university.  Not only does it produce the workforce of this new economy, from bond traders in the business school, to graphic designers in the art school, to biochemists in the science labs, but it increasingly enters that urban economy directly.  This is so not just in the old ways of land speculation and urban development, so characteristic of American urban universities in the last thirty years, but also with joint ventures with the private sector, intellectual property right controls, more targeted state-funded policy research, and privatised education and health management.  It shows its hand as an employer in this new economy seeking flexibility and specialization from its graduate student workers, and it reaches into the global economy for overseas students and cheap sports team shirts.  Things have moved so rapidly in this new urban economy in Europe, and in parts of the United States, Australia, Singapore, and China, that the contentious idea of academic capitalism proposed by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhodes only fifteen year ago, seems common sense today.

 

But more than that, the idea of the university as a workplace, a place of labour, not just knowledge becomes equally obvious amid striking graduate students, unionization drives among academic staff, and down-sizing.  Neither of these things is new of course.  Chris Newfield’s book Ivy and Industry reveals the history of the university’s service to capital, Marc Bousquet’s book How the University Works demonstrates its widespread relations of exploitation today, developed from a long history of what we have elsewhere called the undercommons of the university where discounted and disowned labour nonetheless worked towards another self-education.

 

And yet what is striking is how this sense of the university as a business (and we might be tempted to say as a business school, but we should perhaps resist this temptation) has become quite so visible to everyone in the university.  In Britain, the Research Assessment Exercise was plainly a productivity tool.  In the US, billions are now held by fund managers working for university endowments in the top universities, even in the present crisis.  Capital building projects dominate the budgets of universities and have little to do with pedagogy, extending from new student centres to old age homes for alumnae.  Students and parents need no prompting to consider themselves customers, nor universities to engage in the kind of stakeholder politics formally the province of corporate social responsibility consultants.  Numerous law and management consultancy firms specializing in union-busting hold contracts with American universities and have entered into consultation with the university ‘employers association’ in Britain.  Beneath all of this class struggle is the persistent rumble of relevance, knowledge transfer, and employability.  Every piece of the story is familiar, but the whole narrative takes us into a new land, the land where the general equivalent reigns supreme.

 

Now this is politically disorienting because much of the politics of critique of the university relied on pointing to the rise or the usurpation or the unrecognized government of the general equivalent in the university.  This politics was always risky of course because behind it lurked nostalgia.  But it was effective because the assertion that the university operated not on the general equivalent, but on some combination of principles of difference, originality, craft, ideal, dissent, and calling, seemed easy enough to expose as ideology, especially in the era of neo-liberalism when the fordist welfare expansion contributed to the conceit that the university was de-linked from the market, or at least from its principle of value.  But now this critique has lost its effectiveness because the university does not claim a special place for itself in capitalism, or at least not the same special place, a place removed from incessant comparison and competition in preparation for exchange.  It has moved closer to the rest of society.  Or has it?

 

City

 

All of the propaganda of the creative industries, the creative class, and other dubious sociologies of urban regeneration does at least prompt a question about what kind of labour process is emerging in the city.  Where once urbanization was said to be about the disenchantment of difference and the rise of a muscular general equivalent amid the tenements and towers, today we hear the opposite claim.  Barcelona could only be Barcelona because of its culture and history, even as David Harvey noted this is essentially an investment strategy destined to undermine its own assets.  Difference is what each city strives for in urban policy and planning documents.  Nor is this just destination tourism, but a policy for the urban labour force too.  Workers are supposed to differentiate themselves as entrepreneurs, and to specialize in reinventing themselves and branding themselves anew.  They are supposed to represent their neighbourhoods, their cultures, and their classes rather than to transcend them.  This is not just fanciful marketing or city hall copy.  It is reflected in state investment patterns, for instance, in training.

 

Training

 

It was not so long ago that social democratic parties, in government and out, still pledged to set up re-training programmes for displaced workers, mostly in industry and manufacturing, in response to neo-liberal globalisation policies and new regulatory frameworks, which they also supported in most cases of course.  These were fordist schemes to match fordist displacements.  It would be difficult to find any such schemes today, although a few persist with the help of powerful unions in Germany for instance.  Training has become post-fordist, workers now are encouraged to think of themselves as people who need new careers not new jobs.  They create career planning documents.  They identify skill sets for their skills portfolio.  They are encouraged to think of themselves as special, as offering something unique.

 

Now there are two aspects to this kind of post-fordist training, and indeed to the post-fordist urban regeneration to which it is linked, even in small and medium-sized cities.  First, no one would argue that these workers are not being submitted to the general equivalent.  The very encouragement to be unique is for purpose of comparison and competition in a new market.  And no one would argue that these creative industries are anything other than arenas for the deepening of labour, and the surfacing of the social factory in the urban environment.  But what is interesting is that workers are being encouraged to imagine this is not the case.  And in this, they resemble nothing so much as the university worker of some years ago, encouraged to think of himself or herself as someone with a specialty, a craft, with something that could not be alienated from her, and these properties set her apart, designated her as someone sheltered from the general equivalent.  No one, neither the academic worker, nor the university would argue that this view could stand up to scrutiny (well almost no one.)  But it obtained nonetheless, at least at some level of practice and consciousness.  Even a cursory look at the Berkeley speeches of the Free Speech Movement show that these activists imagined something like this in opposition to Clerk Kerr’s emerging multiversity.

 

So now we have this strange reversal.  Those in the city are to act like the general equivalent does not obtain, and if they notice it does, they are encouraged to say nothing, or rather to say something different.  Meanwhile those in the university are encouraged to act like the general equivalent is indeed standing like a monstrous relation of things right in front of them.  If they notice that it does not fully succeed in reducing thought to work, they are to say nothing about it.

 

Now of course this reversal cannot be complete because neither condition in itself can achieve completeness.  Indeed this reversal is also marked by important transversals, modes of travel that are now possible thanks to this reversal.  One could focus on two, on the way to  proposing some way not so much out of the social factory as some way to make the social factory truly social.  The two transversals I would like to investigate briefly here mark for me what I call the metroversity, linking the university and city in new ways by taking advantage of the pathways opened by the reversal of practice in the general equivalent.

 

Governance

 

At first glance governance appears to promote the general equivalent, but the way it actually does this is counter-intuitive.  Let us begin with some obvious points about governance.  First it is an extension of government to the realm of indifference, that is, directly to the realm of the general equivalent.  Governance does not care where it is applied.  African states need governance but so too do hospital trusts, comprehensive schools, and police forces.  Techniques of governance cross these sectors and registers make it possible to compare them, and even to make them compete for money and attention.

 

The second point is that governance runs across the public and private sectors, and in this language, through civil society as well.  And although its techniques are similar in these sectors its effects are different.  Governance in the public sector, in schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, and armies, is a dissolving agent.  It acts to decompose the rights and protections of those that work in these organisations by introducing a market in rights and protections.  For instance in the university, the rights of a lecturer are now subjected to the rights of stakeholders: employers, governments, funding bodies, parents, communities, and students.  Now one would think that the introduction of more rights and protections would be a positive development.  And indeed this is the main argument of those promoting governance – more voices need to be heard.  But in practice, what this means is more surveillance, and more output, from the lecturer, or nurse, or soldier.  In theory it means that we have moved further into the contented liberal realm of equal rights, which as Marx said, takes us further from equality.  And it is further still into the liberal realm when one considers that these equal rights do mine a certain difference, but more on that below.

 

Meanwhile governance in the private sector, and in civil society, operates along the lines of the notorious demonstration elections of US humanitarian interventionism, proof that rights obtain here, and that voices are being represented and heard.  Just like with the regimes set up by the US in the wake of invasion, the point of the demonstration is that the state is not necessary.  Voices and rights can be heard without it, and indeed in this logic it was the state that was stifling them.  Fair trade is a good example.  As the economist John Sender has suggested, there is virtually no evidence that the rights of wage workers on fair trade farms are enhanced by the demonstration of fair trade labels.  But these labels serve to assure us that an adequate state, with for instance an adequately funded labour inspectorate, is un-necessary because markets and voluntarism are combining to do what governments could not.

 

For all of this we could not say that governance is merely an extension of governmentality.  Although it is much closer to governmentality than it is to government because it is not institutional and ideological, but managerial and technical.  Nonetheless governmentality differs from governance as a form of mediation.  Governmentality mediated between state and subject.  Governance mediates between capital and labour, or perhaps we could say between the social factory and a society of producers.  At another level we could say governance mediates between city and university, that it is the medium of the Metroversity.

 

As I have suggested I think this mediation takes the form of a certain kind of difference.  Unlike government, which relies on certain pre-established loyalties such as states or nations or histories, and usually all of these at a minimum, to say nothing of race and sexuality and conquest, governance asks what loyalties are to be brought forward for discussion.  Unlike governmentality, which relies of expertise and discursive protocols established by specialists, governance transfers at least some of this expertise to the voices it invites into its forum.  But of course it does not do these things because there has been some unrecorded victory for democracy in recent years.  It does this because there has been an unrecorded victory for labour (or at least mostly unrecorded).

 

Or rather than a victory, perhaps we should be more cautious and call it a tipping of the balance in the class struggle toward living labour, such that this struggle increasingly occurs on the terrain of labour, in its associated bodies, and amidst its mass intellectuality.  This struggle on the terrain of labour occurs for the reasons that Italian workerists have documented so well, and that business studies shadows with its attention on everything from coopetition, to emotional labour, to knowledge management, to relationship marketing.  Capital increasingly needs the minds, hearts and souls of workers, not just their bodies, but especially the way they make these organs together.  Thus communication, affect, information, attention, distinction, and critique come to dominate production not absolutely but in their position setting to work the means of production, and indeed in their position as the means of production.

 

Faced with this, capital once again found itself, as it had at a certain moment at the end of Fordism, resisting labour’s wealth-making capacity.  Capital found itself, not for the first time, a fetter on wealth.  If this seems abstract, again business studies cannot give us the complexity of the concrete, but it does point to the changes we are talking about.  The movements from planning to strategy, from personnel to human resource management, from accounting to management consultancy, and from sales to marketing can be seen as attempts by capital to reform its own limits, the limits it now recognized because it saw labour was already capable of something more.  In each case, the assumption was made that there was already wealth-making capacity that was not yet being fully exploited.  In other words, associated labour, labour’s self-activity, was understood as the impulse to change the mechanisms of its capture.  Of course the narrative was the opposite, locating resistance after the fact in workers, citizens, and consumers who needed to be shaped to these new mechanisms.  But this new disciplining was not necessary because labour lagged behind capital and its mechanisms of capture, but precisely because it was dragged back into these mechanisms.

 

Now central to all these new mechanisms was problem of how to access, separate, and set to work social capacities of the mind, heart and soul.  This problem had to aspects.  First, the difficulty of access and separating such qualities in the bodies of workers, and second, the delicacy of trying to set them to work without violating the sociality that made them so valuable in the first place.  If space permitted I could read every one of the changes in business studies and business practices above as attempts to address this double problem.  But the most interesting of all is the one that has become a transversal of the metroversity, governance.  And it is most interesting because it takes us most deeply into the space where capital did not want to go, has never wanted to go – into the space and time of social reproduction, something to which capital has always been as indifferent as possible.  The body went to work but the mind, the heart and soul stayed home – this produced for Marx the estrangement of the worker, and a kind of Marxism that saw the movement of mind, heart and soul into the factory as the moment of class for itself and its own abolition.  It would take feminist and Third World Marxism to reverse the direction of this abolition, not the mind into the factory but the factory expelled from the mind, the heart, the sould, a reversal, a new abolitionism, picked up by post-workerism.

 

Governance is the pursuit of this new abolitionism into the realm of social reproduction.  No longer does capital pursue just labour in its instances into this realm, but now it pursues the movement of labour, through the mechanism of capture called governance. 

 

Governance is a form of research.  And it is for this reason that it traverses the university and the city.  It is a form of capitalist inquiry.  Governance seeks to learn the interests, desires, attention, taste, and judgement of labour in the social factory by asking, by inviting, by provoking, and by insisting, on participation, voice, representation, affective response, position-taking, decision-making, and critical analysis.  If much of this sounds like the seminar room, research laboratory, or reference library, so it should.  Many of the techniques come from the university but more importantly the encouragement of difference in the shadow of the general equivalent puts into operation the city as metroversity.  This ethnography of the social factory conducted by capital relies on labour to identify, separate, and put to work all these social capacities, without de-socializing them to the point where they lose their productivity.  Like the ethnography its power comes from the way its research is really done by those who are researched.  The technique of ethnography as the voice for itself, not for the ethnographer is the key here.  The question of technique however leads us to that other transversal of the metroversity, the business school.

 

Business School

 

At a certain point the quantitative change that marked the growth of the business school over the last twenty years became a qualitative change.  The business school is no longer itself.  Where once this part of the university could be said to be closer to capital than the rest of the university, today it is closer to labour.  Indeed it is labour that now moves the business school.  It is labour that warehouses itself in the business school.  This is no doubt a form of capture, and traditional warehousing in the education sector is well documented.  But this is warehousing in which labour plays an active, initiating role.  This is a just-in-time warehouse, and a warehouse in which one finds not, or not only, commodities of the traditional kind, but cultural commodities, cognitive and affective commodities, financialized and technoscientific commodities.  That is to say the labour that the business school warehouses elects itself and identifies its interests for this purpose, and once there, exhibits all the qualities that capital hopes to capture.  The business school is the place where management, capital, is said to be cultural, discursive, emotional, and where it is said to be about power relations and social networks and autonomous and creative development.  It is for these reasons that I say the business school is closer to labour than capital.  The character of the business school is the character of labour in the metroversity.

 

Of course, this is labour’s warehouse not its home.  The reason the business school can traverse the university and the city is that it exhibits the technique whereby solicited interests and states of affect and attention are embodied as workers.  In other words, it operates in the opposite direction of governance.  Governance requires the provocation of difference to expand the reign of general equivalent in the metroversity.  The business school is subject to all this difference and requires the just-in-time warehouse, requires indeed the act of difference warehousing itself, to demonstrate the general equivalent at work on an expanded scale amidst all that associated labour.  Both traverse the metroversity across the tendencies of the city to turn its face away from the general equivalent, and the university to turn its gaze toward it.  Governance and the business school can operate across sun and shadow, mixing the differences to which labour would put its commonality, with the generality capital builds from this desire.

 

Post-racial racism and fascism

 

The frustration of this desire for commonality however is on display together with the completion of its generalization in the circuits of capital.  And this completion means that difference appears more than ever as the reason for this generalization, rather than as the victim of it.  Given that this generalization remains a vicious and exploitative principle of social organisation, difference is rendered as the temptress by the side of this generalization, the other side, if you like, of Hardt and Negri’s becoming-woman of labour.  This labour is blamed for its own submission to exploitation.  Capital flirts with its desires, but this flirtation conceals domination.

 

This flirtation can therefore take the form of Barack Obama and the post-racial.  But this flirtation coexists with the male glove of state anti-terrorism, European neo-nationalism and the new fascism.  Some of this abuse of labour’s desire was pre-figured as post-fordism spread not only in the US in the attacks on affirmative action, not because it did not work but because it did, but also in the UK and elsewhere in Europe where a working class ‘white rights’ movement took hold under the banner of anti-racism in the early 1990’s.  Commentators like Paul Gilroy were misguided to announce the end of anti-racism struggles (struggles with the sans papier and against police brutality would follow and spectacularly disprove the end of anti-racism politics despite this misappropriation.)  But while superiority remained at the core of this new ‘white rights’ movements, difference and even multiculturalism also entered the discourse marking the tendency of capital to complete its circuits with this explicit appeal to difference, an appeal answered by the universities only too eagerly.

 

Today the neo-nationalism on display throughout Europe and most evident recently in the leadership of Nicholas Sarkozy in France,  Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, and Vladimir Putin in Russia, all of whom have organized fascists to their right, means that the metroversity is site of a combustible mixture.  Governance and the business school direct a frustrated sociality of difference through constant reiteration of its generalization, leaving migrancy, sexuality, and militancy hostage to the revanchism of the city these associated aspirations construct.  Out in the city, governance teases these hostages into submission with its faux interest in their desires, while the business school offers them a chance to prove themselves ready for the moment of generalization.  All along, the threat of more violent restorations of nation and patriarchy creeps toward the scene.

 

None of this slows capital’s pace, and indeed, as Angela Mitropoulos writes, this is not ‘to suggest that race is functional to capitalist formation - on the contrary, it to insist that the one cannot be thought without the other: race no more interrupts the logic of capital than capital can be accumulated without strategies and grammars of differential inclusion, exclusion, circumscription and embodiment. To paraphrase remarks made elsewhere, given that someone cannot profit at the expense of another through an agreement that is indeed symmetrical, as the wage contract is asserted to be, racism (and sexism, which is always bound to racism in the nexus of sexuality, family and reproduction) prepares us for, distributes and rationalises asymmetry. Race is both condition and effect, the predominant form of the social tie (or contract) and its undoing.’[iii]

 

Self-Education

 

Is there any refuge from the metroversity? Is there any fighting it?  Is this growing difference as asymmetry bound to drag us toward a new fascism? I would like to suggest that self-education takes on new importance here.

 

Self-education needs first to be understood like self-organisation as something that occurs both against but also within another pernicious form of organisation, under the sign of the general equivalent, that is, the organisation of wage/slave/reproductive labour.  Self-education as it is already practiced today occurs therefore within and against the metroversity, and within and against its transversal patrols, especially governance and the business school.  But just as self-organisation against ‘self-management’ is increasingly the problem for labour in general in the face of cognitive capitalism, self-education in the face of what Christian Marazzi understands as upkeep of the fixed capital of the body is also not a simple matter.  The story of ‘self-management on the grounds of capitalism’ is well known already, and ranges from the advent of slef-managed teams, to entrepreneurship, to communities of practice.  The problem of ‘self-education on the grounds of capitalism’ is similarly visible, from lifelong learning, to race for more credentials, to the involvement of parents in schools.  But self-education on the grounds of capitalism has not been sufficiently contrasted to the impulse, the social energies, it seeks to generalise on its own terms.

 

This for me is the critical task of the day.  A self-education that struggles against not just lifelong learning but the uniqueness of such learning under the tutelage of the creative city.  Against this education geared to special quality of the individual, a real self-education seeks not this unique selling point of labour, but commonality, such commonality that alone can give rise to projects of the difference, the projects on the outskirts of the metroversity, the outskirts in its midst, the undercommons.

 

 

 

 



[i] The movement of autonomia, or autonomist Marxism, is discussed here as ‘workerist’ and ‘post-workerist’ thought.  The periodisation divides somewhat awkwardly with end of the movement in 1977 in Italy.

[ii] Stevphen Shukaitis, ‘Infrapolitics & the Nomadic Educational Machine’

[iii] Angela Mitropoulos, ‘The Materialisation of Race in the Multiculture’ Dark Matter 2, February 2008

 

Post-Corporate University: Bibliography

 

The Post-Corporate University    

 

 

 

Comments (15)

Clare Birchall said

at 4:17 pm on Jun 2, 2009

Thanks for initiating this experiment, Davin. I've found Henry Giroux's implementation of the term 'public pedagogy' very helpful for thinking about how my students come to me already thoroughly neo-liberalised. But Giroux also says that "revelation guarantees nothing". So, it's not just a case of academics exposing the ideological nature of the neoliberal moment. Giroux might not be thinking along these lines, but his suggestion that ideology critique is outmoded as a pedagogical tool is a nice way to support your call for a turn to theory for thinking through the university beyond corporatism. Giroux writes, "we need to make pedagogy and hope central to any viable form of politics engaged in the process of creating alternative public spheres and forms of collective resistance. The question of agency cannot be separated from a concern about where democratic struggles can take place and what it might mean to create the affective conditions for students and others to want to engage in such struggles in the first place." Again, Giroux might be thinking of less philosophical journeys, but I'm hoping that this experiment might contribute to these conditions...

Davin Heckman said

at 8:28 pm on Jun 8, 2009

This is a great article. Thank you for the recommendation... and I wonder if there might be value in working on a chapter on "public pedagogy" in general.

An interesting synchronicity, I suppose, is that I have a half-written paper on "conspiracy theory subcultures" which deals essentially with the kinds of organic response to late capitalism that you deal with in your own work. I am interested in, of course, a lot of the post-9/11 theories on the right and the left (in the United States, a common rehash of old 19th C theories is that Mexicans are working for the Jesuits to destabilize the US... but the post 9/11 variety usually includes apocryphal stories about prayer rugs in found in the southwestern deserts.) I am also interested in the popularity of stories like the DaVinci Code.

I wonder if it might be fruitful to assemble a bunch of research on vernacular approaches to some of these very questions. Aside from (often overlapping with) conspiracy theory are a variety of subcultural movements, from gaming cultures to religious cultures (from Five Percenters to Left Behinders).

Clare Birchall said

at 12:39 pm on Jun 10, 2009

Yes, a repository of work on pop-knowledges would be great.
I was interested in your idea that: "even if the absurd promises of neoliberalism weren’t so pervasive, the sheer lack of compelling ideas about how one ought to live leaves students vulnerable to just about any system of knowledge which can offer some set of stable meanings. Is it any wonder that large numbers of people are willing to dedicate their lives to video games? The admiration of pop stars? Membership in paranoid political movements? The zealous belief in bizarre conspiracy theories? The participation in pyramid schemes? The collection of fast food promotional toys? Indeed, neoliberalism has the uncanny ability to both facilitate the proliferation of such lifestyles and, finally, to appear as the rational alternative to them, at once creating the illness and offering the cure. It affirms the unstable character of value systems and offers the market as the nexus through which these systems can be unified."

I've never quite thought of neoliberalism as creating the conditions for popular knowledges like conspiracy theories partly because they seem, as you say, to offer an alternative to more clearly neoliberal models of knowledge like those promoted through the "knowledge economy". But it's helpful. I wonder how your comment that neoliberalism might create the illness and offer the cure relate to Derrida's idea of the pharmakon as both poison and remedy. Of course, he's using it in reference to writing and thinking an ideology along these lines is difficult, not least because it would suggest we have to take seriously the idea that there is an undecideability about the operation of neoliberalism (when of course most left academics have decided on its damage).... Just thinking aloud....

Davin Heckman said

at 3:52 pm on Jun 10, 2009

Thank you for pointing to this point. I do think, following Jameson, that conspiracy theory functions as "a poor person's cognitive mapping" (a point which you visit in your essay, "Just Because You're Paranoid..." In this case, neoliberalism creates the need for "cognitive mapping," and thus invites conspiracy theory as a response.

But on a deeper level, neoliberalism is "conspiratorial" in its practice. The turn away from popular governance, privatization, and the relationships between lobbyists and legislatures means that much is determined behind closed doors, in secret, and for the benefit of a few. Derrida is relevant because conspiracy theory is like the pharmakos. It is the pariah, who holds the key to understanding the contemporary pharmakon, but who is absent from the discussion. Conspiracy theories are plausible because they resemble the way that control societies are operated. At the same time, conspiracy theory is treated with ridicule.

The creation of conspiracy theory responds to the crisis of democracy. Its scapegoating serves as a nervous defense of threatened democracy. This ambiguous quality "works" in the privatized "public" sphere. Marxist critiques of capitalism, questions about the Iraq War, media studies, calls for more oversight for big pharma and agribusiness, problems with electronic voting machines, outrage over political coverups--all these can be shuffled off stage and into the box with space vampires and the nephilim. Meanwhile, speculation about the Barack Obama's birth certificate, links between Iraq and al Qaeda, or the nefarious plans of Mexican immigrants--these are treated as legitimate concerns.

Clare Birchall said

at 10:23 am on Jun 11, 2009

Well, I'm not sure that neoliberalism necessitates cognitive mapping more than other ideologies (it might, but I'm not sure we can say it does without exploring that). And yes neoliberalism has seemed to evolve in conspiratorial terms (although I'm sort of wary of narratives which have Milton Freedman plotting away in a room somewhere without thinking about the way that those ideas/values become institutionalised) but not more than certain manifestations of fascism or communism, surely? Or even other forms of capitalism and democracy. Conspiracy theories have always been a part of the political scene in America, for example, way before neoliberalism (of course they certainly have a particular character these days, as your examples suggest). But I like your point about how leftist critique gets dismissed through proximity to popular knowledge while conservative popular knowledge becomes legitmated. In my paper that you mention, (available http://culturemachine.tees.ac.uk/Cmach/Backissues/j006/Articles/birchall.htm) I am trying to think through how cultural studies can use a connection with conspiracy theory to highlight the undecidability of all knowledge.
Anyway, I wouldn't want all this talk of conspiracy to stop anyone from picking up other, more general points from your though-provoking chapter...

Davin Heckman said

at 5:34 pm on Jun 11, 2009

I am kind of using neoliberalism as the economic underpinning of postmodernism, following Jameson's critique of late capitalism. But I suppose I should draw some sharper definitions. And, yes, you are absolutely right, at the level of theory, neoliberalism isn't a product of conspiracy... theory itself, with its ontological implications, is going to have "undecidable" or speciously "teleological" components--which provides that affinity between conspiracy theory and cultural theory.

My comments were more mundane. I meant that shift towards privatization has facilitated a particular type of secrecy, such that decisions which are in the public interest (energy policy, drug research, access to space and information) can be offered up as for the public good, but can quickly be snatched back into the "private" sphere when people want to understand them better. A great example in the US has been the treatment of code for electronic voting machines--an important public act is administered by private companies who refuse to release their code because it is considered "proprietary." A consequence is that conspiracy theory naturally thrives in this setting, not because people are paranoid, but because it IS conspiratorial to have private collaborators working to regulate the public with no oversight or accountability.

But, you are right, my claim here is not well grounded. (I can get polemical... and drift into melodrama). And I don't want to distract from other points... (Maybe we could have a discussion about conspiracy theory subcultures someplace else).

Clare Birchall said

at 4:06 pm on Jun 12, 2009

Thanks for the clarification. Your example is a great one. I think it's really helfpul (and depressing, of course) to think about how this push and pull between private property and public interests creates/supports/contributes to a certain kind of secrecy. Jodi Dean's book, Publicity's Secret, deals with some of these issues, particularly in relation to how they relate to the Internet (rather than neoliberalism), but there are some crossovers. I wonder if it's possible, given how we are focusing here on the university, to think about the relationship between secrecy and pedagogy; and/or secrecy and the university as an institution. It seems to me that the neoliberal university survives on the obfuscation of certain elements (not least the idea that education might serve other needs than those of the market).
p.s. I'm not against polemics or melodrama!

Davin Heckman said

at 4:50 pm on Jun 12, 2009

Secrecy has the potential to develop into a great article/chapter. (How administrations operate. What teachers say and do. How students interact. Attitudes towards cheating and punishment. Etc.)

There is a flourishing of this attitude that professors should not share their opinions, that education should be strictly concerned to the facts and skills needed to get a job.

If a student asks "what I really think," I usually am going to share it, provided the timing is right and the articulation of my view is not going to overwhelm the discussion. In general, I tend to personalize my classes in a way that would make many people uncomfortable... but as a first generation graduate dealing with a bunch of other first generation students... a fair amount of my time is spent helping my students understand the role of the liberal arts. Many students arrive with the view that opinions, even informed ones, especially on race, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc., are best kept secret.

One view is that civil society requires certain barriers of politeness and privacy, especially in the workplace.... but on the other hand having a "public sphere" demands that people are allowed to exist in that public sphere without being overwhelmed by fear. The University, as a place where these things play out, becomes a place where the larger political dramas get played out on a personal and psychological level.

A flipside of looking at micropractices of discretion in the corporate university would be the practices of surveillance, crime, and punishment (plagiarism, cheating and the efforts to police them), which in a sense might parallel the ethics of the larger economy.

nick knouf said

at 9:06 pm on Jun 14, 2009

(posting in parts because pbworks said my comment was too long...)

Thanks Davin for starting this project and continuing the necessary discussion about the university and why we might want to fight for it. For me I have been focusing on that last question recently---why do we put so much energy into fighting for the University as an institution, especially since it has never really been known as a progressive space/place in the first place? What makes us spend so much time trying to reform or radicalize the University, since it has often been used as a tool for the promotion of the nation-state, for the development of the ideal of an Enlightenment-style humanist subject, for the development of militarized workers (in the sciences or engineering), or, today, for the promotion of a neoliberal agenda? Where does this _desire_ come from? And it is a discourse about desire that I think is lacking from many of the present conversations about the University. While indeed we need to consider the political economy of the University, I also think we need to expand this to consider the _libidinal economy_ as well, to use Lyotard's term. I think there can be a useful dialogue between Lyotard's later text on the University, _The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge_ (and there seems to be a tendency to reduce his book to a statement on the "incredulity of metanarratives" in the _preface_, rather than remembering that it is a text written regarding the status of Universities themselves), along with his earlier and much maligned text _Libidinal Economy_ that attempts, much as Deleuze and Guattari did, to come to terms with the failure of a synthesis of Marx and Freud. _Libidinal Economy_ offers, through its performative writing, a way of approaching desire that I think is necessary to keep in mind as we continually discuss the "crisis" of the University.

nick knouf said

at 9:07 pm on Jun 14, 2009

One thing that I want to caution against, however, is falling into the trap of again espousing a rational, Enlightenment-style subject. Not that I think you are doing so, Davin, but it is something that I have seen in Giroux's work, as well as to a certain extent in Bousquet's recent book. Indeed, "revelation guarantees nothing", as Giroux says, and so we have to consider how ideology critique can co-function with more performative and transformative activities.

With regards to the orientation of students towards pop culture, I've found Stephen Duncombe's latest book, _Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy_, quite useful in coming to terms with how progressives or activists can understand the "admiration for pop stars". In it, Duncombe argues that people valorizing celebrities or buying into advertisements is a means of projecting and/or displacing latent desires of their own. Who wouldn't want to have health care like a celebrity, or be able to spend time with their children like in a McDonald's commercial? Duncombe suggests that activists, instead of demanding that people disengage with these aspects of pop culture, see them for what they _might_ be, an opening onto a form of progressive politics that can tie into people's lived experiences. So, we might be able to consider ideology-critique-as-performance whereby we examine pop culture through a lens that then enables us to move quickly into a discussion of alternatives and/or positive actions.

nick knouf said

at 9:07 pm on Jun 14, 2009

Duncombe's book also suggests that progressives need to move beyond a purely rationalist account and take seriously the power of fantasy and dream. There seems to be a fear amongst many on the left that aestheticizing politics, and considering desire, is too close to the techniques of facism---thus the focus on rationality and Enlightenment humanism. But I think we ignore people's desires at our own peril, especially when it comes to the university. Thus, in considering the neoliberal university, and how we might respond/redevelop/reinvigorate it, I'd argue we need to be careful to not only examine it from the lens of the political but the libidinal as well.

nick knouf said

at 9:07 pm on Jun 14, 2009

Finally, as you've intimated a bit in the text Davin, I think the key here is to focus on the pedagogical relation itself---the one-to-one, the one-to-many, the many-to-many. Here is where the real change occurs, not via the changing of university structures themselves (while that might help, it often hurts, at least these days it seems). For me I am less interested in reforming the University-as-institution, but rather focusing on the "structural rejects" (as one of my colleagues Irving Goh has written, following Bataille) within the University itself---those of us here who are concerned about the pedagogical "mission" of the University. I'd like to consider new forms of pedagogical experiments that can still be done within the neoliberal university but might be able to foster that kind of thinking and action that (ideally) would be the purview of an (ideal) University. (This is not to discount the import of activities such as faculty/student/staff organizing, fighting against the continual outsourcing of key university functions (like e-mail and the library), but rather to suggest that we cannot stop there.) There is a lot that we can consider here---Freire, Boal, collectives like Colectivo Situaciones, hackitectura, Precarias de la Deriva, and many, many others---that might help us think through some concrete practices that we can use in our daily interactions.

(sorry to do that...is there any way to change the comment length to something more than 2000 characters, which really is nothing?)

Davin Heckman said

at 4:43 pm on Jun 15, 2009

Thank you, Nick, for your generous comments.

I will make a few of my own:

1. I agree entirely with the critical importance of addressing desire... and not as something which is simply a given... but as something which must be cultivated in the context of community. Students arrive with a set of desires, but often these desires are restricted to those desires which are an accepted form of our "libidinal economy." Where, I think, earlier discussions of the libidinal economy have circulated around the potential of such critiques to liberate, I think that Foucault's "governmentality" can help to situate the potential of such explorations under neoliberalism. And, I think it is also important to move beyond the strong "erotic" connotations of desire that tend to reduce these libidinal forces to flat, almost transactional, relationships. But, yes, desire is a critical component of "education," in particular, learning new types of desire, new engines of desire, new relations of desire, etc. I often think of the libidinal character of Pablo Neruda's work... which I have always characterized as rather torrid... but which expresses a love that is deeper and personal, but it is the love of the one for the many.

Davin Heckman said

at 4:57 pm on Jun 15, 2009

2. On the manner of the Enlightenment subject, at this point, I'd like to keep it open for debate. I, personally, don't believe that it is the "natural state of man" or anything like that.... It is one way of being, it is a learned way of being, and it has its strengths and weakness. It may be superior for the pursuit of certain types of knowledge, for certain political projects, and for certain notions of rights. And, importantly, it is a way of being which emerged with the University, so it can serve as a powerful point of discussion.

3. I like this idea of "structural rejects." In many ways, I think this is what it might come down to, in terms of doing the work of the ideal University. On the other hand, I know enough people who home school their kids or who participate in experimental cooperatives, that I believe it might be possible for people to create institutions based on affinities or theories. And, certainly, there are people who are trying (Like EXCO in the Twin Cities). What kind of institution could be made by institutional rejects? And, more importantly, how do we create more institutional rejects? I do think there is utility in being pragmatic about what we can expect a University to do... but at the same time, I'd also like to think that the world could be fundamentally different, not in my lifetime, but maybe 100 years down the road, if enough people put in the work now. The Chicago School of Economics certainly changed the world in a short period of time.

Clare Birchall said

at 11:04 am on Jun 17, 2009

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