Three recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed deal with the politics of literary theory and the importation of French post-structuralist thought into the U.S. Jeffrey Williams, in “Why Today’s Publishing World is Reprising the Past,” examines a recent trend towards reprinting famous classics of yesterday’s theory scene — Fredric Jameson, Jonathan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, and the like. “The era of theory was presentist, its stance forward-looking. Now it seems to have shifted to memorializing its own past,” he comments. He explains this partly as the shift from “revolutionary,” unsettled science to the successful institution of a new “theory” paradigm, partly as a result of decreased financial support and increasingly precarious jobs in the humanities. But what seems interesting to me is the shift in temporal orientation itself. Academics play with time in so many ways. Sometimes memorializing the past becomes a strategy for making intellectual progress in the present. Other times, the fantasy of a radical break with the past is the occasion for reproducing the past without knowing it.
Liberation reports today that a new report from the French Senate “advocates a system of State budget distribution to universities depending ‘on performance criteria,’ notably that of student job placement.” The current system of budget allocation is “criticized by numerous actors for its unreadable, opaque and complex character.” (Incidentally, the total sum allocated to universities is, by American standards, absurdly low: 8.5 billion euros.) The aim of the new system would be to “restore a greater equity among universities” and to encourage “further efficiency in the utilization of their means.”
I was reading a post by Stanley Katz on the impending closure of the University of Florida’s philosophy department and saw that he’d written another article called “The Pathbreaking, Fractionalized, Uncertain World of Knowledge.” This article begins by quoting A.N. Whitehead:
“The task of the university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue.”
This strikes me as an interesting take on the way the university finds its place in history. There are so many other ways of imagining the university’s historical trajectory: It’s the proud offspring of Western Europe, spreading around the globe to bring enlightenment. (This sounds like Whitehead, but is oriented towards transmitting a prior civilization rather than creating a new one.) Or it’s the ruin of an elitist institution, bereft of its mission of teaching reason or national culture, a degraded victim of neoliberal processes of corporatization, privatization, and auditing. Or it’s a cyborg composed of part medieval tradition, part incoherent consumerism, part mega-scientific research, a patchwork of past and present struggling to stay in motion.
I was stunned the other day to discover that my campus has plans for a temporary morgue in case of emergency. They read as follows:
The Hospital morgue has a limited capacity to store the deceased. If the Hospital is no longer able to accept the deceased they will contact the Chicago Department of Public Health to request refrigerated trailers. While waiting for the refrigerated trailer to be delivered, the following sites could be used as temporary morgues. The temporary morgues must be capable of being secured.
- Gross Anatomy (BSLC)
- First floor Henry Crown Field House
- Batting practice room
- Racket ball courts
The following supplies will be needed to store the deceased:
- Body bags
- Portable air conditioning units
The mood last weekend in Minnesota was sometimes fiery, sometimes like a storm about to break, with groves of raised hands waiting to be called on; other times a bit calmed, a bit weary from ten straight hours of sessions, or sobered by the complexity of the topic or even the complexity of the discussion. It was a conference called “Rethinking the University,” three days long, at first in a dark business school ampitheatre, and then in an old assembly hall with wooden beams and weak sunlight seeping through opaque windows.
The crowds ranged from thirty to ninety, I’d guess; panels dealt with everything from academic labor and grad student unionization to radical pedagogy, the liberal arts, academic knowledge with its marginal branches like theatre and design, Marxian theories of affective labor and Italian autonomism, and of course academic branding and corporatization. A high degree of political commitment, and widespread involvement in the labor movement, set the tone of debate; a number of participants were labor historians, union organizers turned grad students, past members of SDS, or “seventies feminists” (as one woman called herself). Only a few non-academics showed up, raising questions about how to bridge the gap between academic discourse and other kinds of organizing.
I was making a little list of conferences on the university and I thought, for quick historical reference, it might be good to post them here. When I try to make a list – and I’m sure this is a very incomplete one – it turns out that there’s a pretty continuous flow of scholarly interest in the topic. (And this is all ignoring the work of ASHE and other education research groups that I don’t know.)
- University of Minnesota: 2008, Rethinking the University Conference.
- NYU: 2008, University Spaces, Academic Bodies: New Approaches to the Corporate University.
- University of Binghamton: 2008, Knowledge, Violence, Discipline: (Re)Thinking Politics and the University.
- University of Chicago: 2003-06, New Perspectives on the Disciplines, a 3-year Mellon project.
- University of Chicago: 2000-01, Idea of the University Colloquium.
- American Council of Learned Societies: 2004, Ideas and Ideals of the University Panel
- Cornell University: 2002-06, Social Science & Higher Education Network.
- Cornell University: 2002, Conference on the Idea of the University.
- Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association:
- 2005, The Ethnography of Academic Life
- 2006, Images in and of the university: The clash of American academic ideals and strategies
- 2007, Playing in your own backyard: Ethnography of Higher Education; Beyond Access: Difference, (In)equality and Justice in Higher Education; Managing Knowledge: Universities, Knowledge Production and the Global Economy
An article called “In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined,” in the Times, reports that the number of undergraduate philosophy majors is climbing across the country. The interesting thing is that the reasons given for the increase in enrollment are far from traditional justifications for philosophical inquiry. A student at Rutgers, Didi Onejame, is said to think that philosophy “has armed her with the skills to be successful.” What are these skills? “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking,” says the executive director of the APA. Students also, apparently, find it “intellectually rewarding,” “a lot of fun,” good training for asking “larger societal questions,” and a good choice for an era when the job market changes too fast, supposedly, to pick a more reliably marketable field.
According to a curious book, Christopher Driver’s The Exploding University – a journalist’s reflective late-60s tour of universities around the globe – the courses offered at the University of Vincennes as of 1969/70 were as follows:
- La 3ème étape du marxisme-leninisme: le maoïsme (Judith Miller)
- Problèmes concernant l’idéologie I (Judith Miller)
- Problèmes concernant l’idéologie II (Jacques Rancière)
- Théorie de la 2ème étape du marxisme léninisme: le concept du stalinisme (Jacques Rancière)
- Introduction aux marxistes du XXème siècle: (1) Lenine, Trotsky, et le courant bolchévique (Henri Weber)
- (2) Les écrits de Mao Tsé Toung (Henri Weber)
- La dialectique marxiste (Alain Badiou)
- La science dans la lutte des classes (Alain Badiou)
- Problèmes de la pratique révolutionnaire (Jeannette Colombel)
- L’idéologie pédagogique (René Scherrer)
- Logique (Houria Sinaceur)
- Epistémologie des sciences exactes et des mathématiques (Houria Sinaceur)
- Epistémologies des sciences de la vie (Michel Foucault)
- Pb. épistemologiques des sciences historiques (François Chatelet)
- Critique de la pensée spéculative grecque (François Chatelet)
- Nietzsche (histoire et genéalogie) (Michel Foucault)
- Les idéologies morales d’aujourd’hui (Françoise Regnault)
- A propos de la littérature et del’art (François Regnault)
- Le signe chez Nietzsche (François Rey)
One of the most interesting phenomena of post-Reagan academic culture in America is the student perception of “postmodernism.” Or of “postmodern theory” or simply of “theory.” Now, to be honest, I find ‘postmodernism’ useless as an intellectual category. Possibly it remains useful in thinking about art or architecture; I’m not sure. Of course, I recognize “postmodernism” as a term with a well-known, if fuzzy, referent. It designates such French intellectuals as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Lacan, and certain American academics like Donna Haraway or Richard Rorty or James Clifford (in anthropology), and more importantly a whole academic social world, recognizable by its characteristic concerns, idioms, arguments, and styles.
I find it useless, myself, for three reasons. For one thing, it’s too vague to be useful in academic work. It elides all the intellectual, disciplinary, and institutional differences between, say, Derrida and Foucault, or Deleuze and Lacan, or Rorty and Haraway. Second, it’s typically used as a term of abuse, a brand of shame that designates others rather than selves. No one I know self-identifies as a postmodernist (in the same way that there are no self-identified “hipsters”). And finally, it’s seeming like a rather obsolete category at the moment; its famous controversies are behind us and its leading figures are long tenured or deceased. (1971: Foucault debates Chomsky on human nature; Allan Bloom sparks the Canon Wars, and Paul de Man’s pro-Nazi writings surface; 1996: the Sokal Hoax; 1995-1998, the Bad Writing Contest.)
Liberation reports that twenty universities are still affected by student strikes, and more interestingly, that teacher-researchers are joining students in the streets. One said:
«La loi attaque la fonction publique», s’indigne Noël Bernard, maître de conférence en mathématique à l’université de Savoie, à Chambéry, et membre du Snesup-FSU, premier syndicat du supérieur. Il dénonce «le recrutement massif de contractuels», «l’autoritarisme instauré pour le président d’université et son cénacle», «les équipes qui seront pieds et poing liés aux bayeurs de fond privés».
“The law attacks the public function,” exclaimed Noël Bernard, a master of conferences in mathematics at the university of Savoie, in Chambéry, and a member of Snesup-FSU, premier union for higher education. He denounced “the massive hiring of contract workers,” “the institutionalized authoritarianism for the university president and his circle,” “the research groups that will be bound hand and foot to those who lust for private funds.”