Tag Archives: reflexivity

On real problems

I came across a confrontational moment in one of my interview transcripts. We had been talking about philosophers’ metanarratives about “truth.” But my interlocutor found my questions a bit too oblique.

Philosopher: But I don’t know — you aren’t interested in the solutions to problems?

Ethnographer: The solutions to philosophical problems for example?

Philosopher: Problems! Real ones! For example do you consider that the word “being” has several senses? Or not? Fundamental ontological question. Do you accept that there are several senses or one? It changes everything. And what are your arguments one way or the other?

Ethnographer: Well me personally I’m not an expert—

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Nietzsche’s Niche: Kirp on the University of Chicago

I was just reading Christopher Newfield’s interesting 2003 book review on university-industry relations when I noticed that he mentioned a chapter by Kirp on the University of Chicago. The following rather florid (occasionally insulting) prose is interesting — at least to me — because it proceeds from remarking that the university is a bastion of self-congratulatory self-reflexive discourse to commenting on a major contradiction in the university’s labor relations. In other words, it points out the conundrum of a university that bills itself as deeply devoted to rigorous education while also having faculty who are primarily hired for research and who teach as little as possible. This means, as Graduate Students United knows well, that there are a lot of underpaid grad student and adjuncts who depend on teaching while being written out of the institutional self-image.

But I’m getting ahead of the textual excerpt I wanted to present. Although it doesn’t always manage to be an accurate description of the university, it compensates by being entertaining and at times outrageous. (Outrageousness being nothing to sneeze at when it comes to desanctifying institutional self-images.)

The University of Chicago is more self-absorbed—more precisely, self-obsessed—than any other institution of higher learning in America. Its animating myth was manufactured by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the institution’s pivotal president and promoter non pareil. “It’s not a very good university,” Hutchins declared, “it’s only the best there is.” Never mind Oxford or Berkeley. Harvard and Yale may fill the corridors of power, loyalists say; in the domain of ideas, Chicago rules. Nowhere else is the “Ivy League” a term of derision—the land of academic “Jay Leno-ism,” it is called, a reference to its veneration of big-name professors derided at Chicago as “dying elephants.” A passing remark made long ago by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead is recycled as if it were gospel: “I think the one place where I have been that is most like ancient Athens is the University of Chicago.”

Three-quarters of the faculty live within a mile of the campus in the enclave of Hyde Park, a hothouse of learned chatter and salacious gossip set apart, by design, from the bombed-out inner-city landscape, peopled mainly by dirt-poor blacks, which surrounds it. The fact of isolation, it is said half-jokingly, is why the university’s athletic teams are known as the Maroons. The Chicago tribe takes pleasure in furious disputations about everything from monetarism to metaphysics. While Harvard preens, Chicago navel-gazes, turning out bookshelves’-worth of histories and biographies, faculty committee reports, student newspapers, broadsheets, and websites devoted to itself. There are several hundred listings in the “introductory” bibliography of the university’s history that the campus librarians have prepared.

Seemingly everyone is an amateur historian, mining the past for ammunition that can be used in the present. “No episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations [of higher education in the decade following the Civil War] than the founding of the University of Chicago,” writes Frederick Rudolph in his benchmark history of American higher education. It is “one of those events in American history that brought into focus the spirit of an age.” When John D. Rockefeller launched the university with a gift of $2.3 million, he expressed the hope that an institution situated far from the tradition-bound East Coast would “strike out upon lines in full sympathy with the spirit of the age.” Although Chicago is a great school, in this respect Rockefeller would be disappointed. The dominant trope, observes Dennis Hutchinson, professors of law and longtime dean of the undergraduate college, is that “at Chicago we’ve always done ‘X,'” meaning whatever is being advocated at the moment.

There is another, less frequently acknowledged tradition in Hyde Park, a willingness on the part of the university’s leaders, including Hutchins and William Rainey Harper, the founding president, to do whatever has been necessary to raise money for a chronically cash-starved school. Among its past ventures are a junior college and the nation’s biggest correspondence school; in 1998 it attached itself to Unext.com, a for-profit business school.

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Bourdieu’s reasoned utopianism

Perhaps it is necessary, to be a good sociologist, to combine some dispositions associated with youth, such as a certain force of rupture, of revolt, of social “innocence,” and others more commonly associated with old age, such as realism, and the capacity to confront the rough and disappointing realities of the social world.

I believe that sociology does exert a disenchanting effect, but this, in my eyes, marks a progress toward a form of scientific and political realism that is the absolute antithesis of naive utopianism. Scientific knowledge allows us to locate real points of application for responsible action; it enables us to avoid struggling where there is no freedom—which is often an alibi of bad faith—in such a manner as to dodge sites of genuine responsibility. While it is true that a certain kind of sociology, and perhaps particularly the one that I practice, can encourage sociologism as submission to the “inexorable laws” of society (and this even though its intention is exactly the opposite), I think that Marx’s alternative between utopianism and sociologism is somewhat misleading: there is room, between sociologistic resignation and utopian voluntarism, for what I would call a reasoned utopianism, that is, a rational and politically conscious use of the limits of freedom afforded by a true knowledge of social laws and especially of their historical conditions of validity. The political task of social science is to stand up against irresponsible voluntarism and fatalistic scientism, to help define a rational utopianism by using the knowledge of the probable to make the possible come true. Such a sociological, that is, realistic, utopianism is very unlikely among intellectuals. First because it looks petty bourgeois, it does not look radical enough. Extremes are always more chic, and the aesthetic dimension of political conduct matters a lot to intellectuals.

(Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, 196-7)

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