As you well know, today is not the first time, nor presumably the last, that academics will have gathered to discuss the Idea of the University. There is a long history of eminent books and essays dealing with precisely this topic, the most renowned of which, in English at least, is undoubtedly the volume of essays first published almost a century and a half ago by John Henry Cardinal Newman. More recently, both F. R. Leavis (1943) and Jürgen Habermas (1989) have presented their views on the university under the identical heading. (1)
However different these and other previous writers addressing the same subject have been, they all were united in assuming that the question posed by this title should be understood as requiring a response in terms of a what: What, they ask, is or should be the Idea of the University? It is the self-evidence of this reading of the question implicitly posed by our title that distinguishes these approaches from that which imposes itself today.
The question that imposes itself today is not simply what the idea of the university is, but whether such an idea still exists: whether we can take for granted that there still is a single, unifying idea effectively informing the institution of the university.
The reasons this idea can no longer be taken for granted have to do with the two types of changes: changes that have been taking place over the past decades in society generally, involving technology, politics and the economy, on the one hand; and on the other, changes which, over a similar period, have been affecting the ways in which what I would call the bread and butter element of the university - i.e. knowledge - is conceived, acquired, transmitted and practiced.
The problem therefore is so complex, that it is impossible for a single individual to address it in a satisfactory manner. If there ever was a situation in which multidisciplinary research was called for, it is this one.
I stress this at the outset, since all I can present to you (this evening) will necessarily be inadequate insofar as it represents only one single perspective, one discipline, and therefore cannot possibly do justice to the problems involved. Take the following remarks, then, as an initial effort and an invitation to further thought and work on this very urgent problem and not as in any way a satisfactory analysis, much less a proposal for solutions.
A preliminary remark.
Given the fact that one must today ask not just what but whether the university still has an idea, I have chosen to place my remarks under a slightly modified title, which asks about The Future of the University, rather than about its idea. Here again it is a question that asks not just what what future lies in store for the university but whether the university can be said to have a future.
I dont mean here to sound unduly alarmist, although there are, I fear, good reasons to be very concerned about the future of the university. Rather, I want to inquire as to the nature of the relationship between the university and the future: to assume that the university has a future is not simply to assert that it will continue in some form in the years to come: it implies that the university, as we know it, will remain essentially unchanged in the future. This I find at the very least open to question.
It would seem, therefore more appropriate to ask not if the university has a future, what rather what sort of university the future has or holds in store. This line or questioning leads me to a third and final preliminary remark: so far I have been speaking of the university in the singular: whether it has an idea, a future, or whether the future has it?
But how can we be so certain that the university is in itself one and the same, that there is a university, in the sense of an institution that despite all spatial, temporal, cultural, national differences, is sufficiently self-identical to justify speaking of it in the singular? Why are we so ready to take for granted or at least to assume that the university possesses an intrinsic unity? There are I believe at least two answers to this question.
The first is general in scope and not specific of the university. It has to do with our use of proper nouns. To believe that proper nouns name things properly, which is to say, in a way that allows them to be seized, grasped, comprehended once and for all, is reassuring. It is tempting to speak about things as though they were one and the same because it gives us the sense that our own position is no less stable. In situating objects, we situate ourselves vis-à-vis.
The alternative is less reassuring: it is an unpredictable voyage in search of predicates, properties, attributes, leading us into a network of signification with no sure and certain end in sight. This is why, in matters of knowledge at least, we tend to prefer the stability of names and proper nouns over the incompleteness of verbs, not to mention pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and the like.
All of this may seem trivial, but I want to suggest that such matters can hardly be taken seriously enough. The less on worries about ones use of language, the more one is subjected to its effects. We should not, therefore, simply take for granted that the university, despite its name is characterized more by unity than by diversity.
I realize that this may go somewhat against the grain, especially here in Sydney, where the nickname of your university is quite simply Sydney uni. Nevertheless, having studied and taught at universities in a number of different countries, I am often struck by two characteristics: first, how diverse universities in different countries can be; and second, how unconcerned most members of universities are by this kind of diversity.
It is not that the members of university are not interested in other cultures. Rather, there is something in the structure, traditions and function of universities that seems to encourage such indifference. Perhaps it has something to do with the view of universities described by Cardinal Newman at the very beginning of his lectures, where he defines them as a place of teaching universal knowledge. (2)
If however universities are places where universal knowledge is taught, then it is understandable that they would not like to be reminded of the very far-reaching differences in the ways that universal knowledge is considered in different areas of the world. For such diversity might well call into question the universality of the knowledge taught in universities.
I want therefore to keep this question open that of the possible diversity of the university and not necessarily assume that the experiences that we have had with the universities in which we have studied and taught is a sufficient basis to justify speaking of the university as though it were one and the same despite the very distinct cultural, geographical and national contexts in which universities operate.
After these preliminary remarks, let me begin by calling your attention to a phrase I just used, one which I believe to be rather symptomatic of the way we think about and even experience universities. The phrase is so short and also so common that you probably didnt notice anything peculiar about my referring, a moment ago, to the universities in which we have studied and worked. And yet, there is something distinctive about this phrase.
We would not, for instance, say that we worked in IBM or General Motors, whereas we do often speak of the university as a place in which we not only work and study, but also, in a sense, reside. This tendency is perhaps more pronounced in the United States than in Australia, Europe or in other parts of the world. American students leave their families not just to study, but also to live on campuses that function in loco parentis, as the phrase goes.
The campus of the University thus functions as a key station along the way that leads from the family to society. Despite this transitional status, however, there remains, at least in the English-speaking world, a strong propensity to regard the space of the university as distinctively self-contained. Thus, the modern academic community could be seen as the contemporary successor to the medieval guild of scholars. The result therefore is a tension that characterizes the experience of the university.
On the one hand it defines its space as being relatively self-contained and autonomous. But on the other, it is also defined as a transition that is necessarily determined by factors outside. University life for the student normally ends in what is called a commencement: that is, with the beginning of what is considered to be adult life. One way this tension is resolved, perhaps, is through an attitude that is reflected in the designation of the university as an alma mater. The university is thus characterized as a kind of womb in which the embryo of the social being is brought to fruition before being expelled i.e., born(e) - into the world.
But the tension I am describing does not stop at the university's ambiguous social structure and function. It is reinforced by the fundamental task of the university, which however it is defined, involves the acquisition of knowledge. By this term I want to encompass what we usually call teaching and research. For both involve various aspects of the acquisition of knowledge: acquisition of established knowledge by the student, and acquisition of new knowledge by the teacher.
In both cases, however, this process of knowledge acquisition involves two divergent and yet interdependent tendencies. The one requires an openness to the unknown, in order to move beyond a given state of knowledge. It is this that Charles Sanders Peirce presumably meant when he remarked, rather enigmatically, that all knowledge involves "a process of change".
This however is only the one side, the one dimension of the acquisition of knowledge. There is another, no less indispensable aspect, however, which demands not openness but rather a certain closure. For how is knowledge to be recognized as knowledge, as valid, how is it to be reliably distinguished from error or illusion if it is not assimilated to what is already known.
To acquire knowledge means therefore not simply being open to the unknown, but also reducing or assimilating it to what is familiar. The tension between closure and openness thus characterizes the university both in its social function and its epistemic practice.
But although it is endemic to universities as institutions involved in the acquisition of knowledge, the degree and intensity it can attain varies with the particular situation of universities. Despite the differences of these situations in different countries, it seems that in recent years conditions have emerged in a wide variety of areas that have given this tension an unprecedented intensity, and perhaps, a new significance.
The reason one is able to generalize about these conditions has to do with the two factors that seem most decisive in bringing about this change. At the risk of simplifying and schematizing, I would designate them as, on the one hand, the globalization of the economy, and on the other, as the virtualization of reality. Both are closely bound up with the rapid development and proliferation of the electronic media.
Rather than giving an abstract definition of these two factors, I prefer to indicate what I mean by those two terms by discussing how and why they have had a major impact upon universities. As the processing and storage of data is increasingly entrusted to the electronic media, the self-contained spaces that formerly characterized universities become increasingly dependent upon an electronic space that is intrinsically non-localisable.
Electricity, traveling at the speed of light, breaks down the distinctions of traditional Euclidean and Newtonian space, replacing the conception of a physical, material reality with that of virtuality. The traditional sites of university activities: the library, the classroom, the campusl lose their exclusive hold upon the functions of teaching, research and communication that they traditionally exercised. It should be noted that this tendency is nothing new.
What has been called the professionalization of knowledge that has characterized university studies throughout the 20th century has long since undermined the claim of the individual university to be the privileged site of the acquisition of knowledge. But this trend has in the past few decades been magnified to the extreme by the advent of computer-operated technologies of data-storage, processing and retrieval. Digital libraries, tele-teaching, tele-conferencing and electronic networking of all sorts profoundly relativize the importance of universities as localized institutions.
Although the fact of this change is obvious, its consequences remain difficult to predict. Will they progressively reduce the importance of individual universities, at least insofar as research is concerned, as increasing amounts of data are digitized and become available through the data-banks on the Internet? Will the medium of teleconferencing gradually supplant the direct contact between teachers and students, which has already been considerably reduced over the past decades as undergraduate teaching has come to be increasingly assigned to graduate students? Or, as seems more likely, will such tele-technologies serve as a means of reducing the variety of university offerings and thereby the diversity of approaches that is the positive side of what is often decried as duplication or redundancy? Finally, will universities emerge as privileged sites for the exploration and development of new techniques and applications of technology, and if so, what will be the influence of market-forces in determining the directions of such research and development?
However one chooses to respond to such questions, what seems clear is that the traditional sense universities have had of themselves as constituting a privileged and self-contained space, a kind of womb in which intellectual and social maturation takes place, is becoming ever more tenuous in the face of the delocalizing effects of computerized and media technologies. When one turns now to the second of the two factors I have mentioned as affecting the present and future of universities, that of globalization, one finds similar tendencies at work.
Globalization, of course, refers to the increasing importance of international markets and competition for national economies. It therefore designates the progressive intrusion of the economic rationality of a profit-driven system into areas which had hitherto not been entirely subordinated to such constraints. Obviously, there is a very topical issue here in Australia, where the implacable logic of globalization seems to have arrived belatedly, compared to the countries of North America and Europe, but with no less impact.
The effects of such globalization have been felt, largely adversely, by universities all over the world and this prospect now threatens higher education in Australia.. The justification for the drastic reduction in government spending now being proposed for this country repeats the story we have heard elsewhere. To remain competitive in the global market, the budget deficit of the state must be reduced. And to reduce the budget deficit, there seems for many government policy-makers no other way than that of reducing public spending, either by curtailing public services, such as education, health, transport, communications etc., or by privatizing them, which is to say, turning them over to corporations whose finality is not that of providing a service but rather that of making of a profit.
The only government service that seems to remain largely, although not always, exempt from such reductions, is the military budget which, in the United States at least, presently consumes 50 per cent of all taxes paid the Federal government. In view of the worldwide nature of such globalization, it would be a grievous mistake to see the tendency of the economically developed countries to reduce state support to education and research as merely a quantitative and temporary adjustment. Rather, what seems to be involved is a fundamental and political redefinition of the social value of public services in general, and of universities and education in particular.
Social and political values are today increasingly subordinated to economic values, that of producing profit, of operating efficiently. Notions such as accountability, responsibility, transparency are all being redefined so as to assume a direct, fiduciary significance. It is that makes it more anachronistic than ever to speak of an idea governing the university. Instead, we find a propensity of managerial, administrative and also professorial discourse to define the university in terms of its mission.
This term, however, is today largely purged of whatever religious or transcendent connotations it once had and instead is employed to suggest the dependence of the university upon the prevailing economic system. The mission of the university is thus increasingly understood as that of being accountable to those who pay for it, whether these are understood to be large corporations, individual taxpayers or even students.
One reaction to this economization of universities coming from the latter themselves is to attempt to invoke an idea of institutional and intellectual autonomy which may never have truly existed in the first place. This, at least, is the thesis and warning of one of the most thought-provoking of recent studies on this topic, The University in Ruins by Bill Readings. This book, which should have announced the debut of a brilliant young scholar, reaches us sadly as a memorial to its author, who died in a plane crash in October of 1994.
I want therefore to pay tribute to Bill Readings and to a book that strikes me as indispensable to any serious discussion of the university today, whether of its idea, its mission or its future. Although any attempt to summarize a book as rich as this one is bound to be reductive, selective and schematic, I will nevertheless single out as Readings' major argument the notion that the university today has lost its idea, but an idea which was never strictly or exclusively the property of the university in the first place.
The university, he argues, at least in its modern first theorized in Germany around 1800, has always been defined as an autonomous structure, but only in order thereby to provide a decisive service to society which is to say, to serve a function outside of itself. This basic function, Readings argues, was until recently to provide a model of unification for reconciling what otherwise would remain highly contradictory and conflictual in society at large: the opposition of tradition and progress, of individual and collective, of particular and general interests, of private and public.
The manner the university sought to accomplish this task was through inculcating and maintaining an idea of culture, first elaborated by Wilhelm von Humboldt in his project for the newly founded University of Berlin. The German notion of Bildung, condenses both the existence of established knowledge and manners, on the one hand, and the necessity of their transmission, inculcation and development, on the other. It is this unity that the modern university was called upon to provide not just to society at large, but to its dominant political structure, that of the nation-state.
The institution of the nation-state, in turn, Readings asserts, was always more or less based in a notion of the people and as such, in an appeal to ethnicity. The unity of this people was thus to be assured by a model of culture provided by the university to the nation-state. In short, the function of the University was to provide a space whose unity, autonomy and self-containment would both prefigure the unity of the state while at the same time providing it with exemplary citizens and subjects.
For the German thinkers, the primary academic discipline in this process was considered to be philosophy, since it alone involved the exemplary exercise of reason for its own sake, and not for the production of a particular or specialized knowledge. From the middle of the 19th century on, however, the notion of an autonomous cultural identity shifted, in England at least, from the discipline of philosophy to the study of literature, and the exemplary cultural figure was no longer seen to be the man of reason but rather, as with Cardinal Newman, the man of letters. It is against this historical background that Readings seeks to determine just what has changed in relatively recent times and what is continuing to change today.
What distinguishes higher education in the contemporary period, he argues, is that what was formerly regarded as the University of Reason, and then as the University of Culture, has today been supplanted by the University of Excellence and that this shift is tied to the transformation of the role of the nation-state in assuring the social nexus: On the surface this book makes a rather simple argument. It claims that since the nation-state is no longer the primary instance of the reproduction of global capital, culture the symbolic and political counterpart to the project of integration pursued by the nation-states lost its purchase. The nation-state and the modern notion of culture arose together, and they are, I argue, ceasing to be essential to an increasingly transnational global economy.
This shift has major implications for the University, which has historically been the primary institution of national culture in the modern nation-state. From this vantage-point, Readings concludes that:
the current fierce debate on the status of the University [...] by and large misses the point, because it fails to think the University in a transnational framework, preferring to busy itself with either nostalgia or denunciationst often with an admixture of the two.And he would surely be right in this. His primary point, at least to begin with, is that the university cannot hope to defend itself from revisions of its social status by appealing to values such as autonomy, reason and above all culture, since such values were always in fact defined in terms of a heteronomous function: that of providing the nation-state with a model of unification.
If it true that this nation-state is no longer the decisive or sovereign instance in the life of the nation, then defenses of the university in terms of its cultural mission can no longer hope to be effective. It is here that the question of excellence intervenes. According to Readings, this is the paradigmatic term governing the process of redefinition to which universities in the West (his models are above all Britain, the United States and France) are being subjected.
The question that therefore must be addressed is: What is the significance of excellence and how does it involve a change with respect to the previous values of culture and reason? Readings answer is that the notion of excellence marks the abandonment any attempt to determine institutions of higher education in terms peculiar to that institution: The appeal to excellence marks the fact that there is no longer any idea of the University, or rather that the idea has lost all content. As a non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system, excellence marks nothing more than the moment of technologys self-reflection.
All that the system requires is for activity to take place, and the empty notion of excellence refers to nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information. In place of the reference to the nation-state, that provided the previous ideas of the university with their content, the term of excellence marks the self-reflection of the system as a self-contained technology The question raised by this formulation: Whether self-reflection, even if it is technocratic and bureaucratic, does not constitute a kind of reference - is one to which I shall return a bit further on. Let us for the moment however leave it in suspense while we develop Readings' argument.
The autonomy of Reason that marked the Enlightenment tradition has now been transferred, as it were, to the autonomy of the organizational system itself, which seeks no finality beyond the borders of its own performance and self-interest, measured quantitatively in terms of the optimal input/output ratio of information. The university has become a sort of cybernetic, self-regulating machine, an automaton serving above all the interests of its administrators.
In short, the relation of the University to its outside is no longer primarily political, as it was in the past, but now frankly and straightforwardly economic. This, Readings notes, somewhat ironically, has at least the advantage of resolving the inferiority complex of many academics, perhaps more in the U.S. than elsewhere, who feel that they might in the end be nothing more than social parasites:
The University is now no more of a parasitical drain on resources than the stock exchange or the insurance companies are a drain on industrial production. Like the stock exchange, the University is a point of capitals self-knowledge, of capitals ability not just to manage risk or diversity but to extract a surplus value from that management. In the case of the University this extraction occurs as a result of speculation on differentials of information.This, then, is the University of Excellence as Readings presents it. It is characterized not just by the subordination of the academic institution to social power-relations, since that has always been the case more or less.
Rather, what has happened in recent years entails a shift in the nature of that subordination: a shift, one could say, from the social nexus to the cash nexus as the dominant medium in which power-relations operate. These relations no longer present themselves as primarily political in the traditional sense of the term, which associated politics with the sovereignty of nation-states. Instead the political perspectives and options of nation-states and their citizens are increasingly subordinated to the exigencies of transnational corporations run by self-interested bureaucracies.
This situation is then summed up Readings in one of the most provocative and surely also questionable formulations in this thought-provoking book: The University is not just like a corporation: it is a corporation. The question however that remains to be answered is: what exactly is a corporation? For Readings, it seems that a corporation is ultimately and essentially a bureaucratic system whose internal regulation is entirely self-interested without regard to wider ideological imperatives. Now, it is certain that most corporations are not primarily interested in wider ideological imperatives, but this does not mean that they can be defined as bureaucratic systems that are entirely self-interested.
There are many bureaucratic and self-interested systems that are not identical with corporations. For there is one element that Readings seems to neglect in his eagerness to identify the University of Excellence with the transnational Corporation, and that is simply that the finality of corporations remains the production of profit over the short or medium term. In short, what his equation of University and Transnational Corporation misses is the question of ownership. Despite the very important convergence of corporate management and ownership, there remains a fundamental distinction, even today, between management and stockholders, between bureaucracy and ownership.
True, this distinction is often blurred today, the two frequently overlap and there seems to be a strong tendency to reduce the gap between them, but structurally that difference persists and, I would argue, remains decisive. It is as if Readings, in his effort to discern what is distinctive in the contemporary form of the university, himself falls prey to the traditional temptation of construing the university as an institution that is utterly self-contained, identifying simply such self-containment with a bureaucratic system of management that administers excellence in terms of its own self-interest.
It is as if the dream of the university to finally rid itself of all external tutelage seems to reach fruition, albeit in a nightmare, when Readings asserts that: the University is no longer primarily an ideological arm of the nation-state but an autonomous bureaucratic corporation. Even assuming, concesso non dato, that universities today are identical in structure to transnational corporations, just how autonomous can such corporations be considered to be if they are obliged to follow the imperatives not simply of the cash nexus, but of satisfying shareholders whose interests require the constant maximization of profits, in the short or medium term? It is precisely this temporal factor constraining the strategies of most transnational corporations that seems to me to provide at least one reason why it may be premature to equate the reduction of national sovereignty brought about by the rise of transnational corporate capitalism with the demise of the nation-state.
Even in terms of the exigencies of global capitalism, there may well be an important functions left for nation-states, related to the organization of unprofitable but necessary social tasks, as well as to the solution of long-range problems whose temporal dimensions exceed the perspectives imposed upon corporations, whether transnational or not. If universities are defined as institutions that help extract a surplus value from speculation on differentials in information, then those sectors of the university that can provide such differentials may well have bright futures in store for them. And in the United States, at least, we begin to see an internal differentiation within the university precisely along such lines: those disciplines that are deemed capable of providing or developing information-differentials which might become a source of surplus value are singled out for donations or contracts emanating from the private, corporate sector.
To what extent however the humanities are able to sell themselves as providers of such potentially profitable information is obviously very much an open question, but it may well be one that will determine their future in a world of global capitalism. For the humanities, then, much will depend on the ways that the established disciplines define their future practices. Disciplines that continue to conceive of their activity in terms of self-contained and sovereign fields will, I think, find themselves faced with increasing difficulties, both in terms of their attractiveness to outside donors, and also in terms of finding an internal constituency among incoming students.
This is not merely because of the largely pragmatic considerations of acquiring marketable skills, although such considerations are more than justified in the face of a job market in which the number of qualified, reasonably well-paid positions is rapidly decreasing. Rather, the justified expectation of students that the university will provide them with an opportunity of understanding the world in which they must not merely work, but also live, may well require a revision of the cognitive model that has long dominated university teaching and learning: the professionalized model of a closed, self-contained area or field in which one can establish a relative degree of mastery through learning and scholarship. The very notion of scholarship tends to take for granted the enabling exclusions and limits through which any field of knowledge is constituted as a closed and self-contained area.
In a world of increasing virtualization, taking such exclusions for granted is less and less effective, and perhaps also less and less efficient. It is not a mere accident that the vocabulary imposed by the computerization of information is one that stresses dynamic relations, rather than static fields. The Internet consists of web sites, of links and networks not of self-contained realms or fields. And the economic value of commodities, as is well known, is not inherent in their physical makeup nor accessible in their immediate manifestation, but rather a function of the most complex relations.
Both economic and technological factors thus contribute to a virtualization of reality which can no longer be effectively articulated by traditional notions of knowledge, based on a criterion of truth as the adequation of thought to its object. In the face of virtualization there is a tendency which by no means is unmitigated to reconstrue the relation of knowledge to the unknown. Hitherto, one could say, the unknown was regarded, from the point of view of academic scholarship, primarily as the other or negative side of knowledge: as the not-yet-known.
But in the light of virtualization, the unknown becomes as it were the element or medium of knowledge, not merely its negative other. Virtuality emerges not as a possibility to be realized or actualized, but as the dynamic tendency of a network of links, out of which knowledge emerges as nodes or clusters of connections, which in turn are always subject to transformation by further exploration or development of the network or networks: for there can never be just one network, and it is this perhaps that distinguishes this aspect of virtualization from the self-referentiality of the bureaucratic system which elevates the notion of excellence to its supreme value. This may explain a contradiction in Readings' evaluation of excellence.
On the one hand, he claims that it participates in what he calls a general dereferentialization of the university, which no longer refers to anything but its own activity or performance as a closed system. But on the other hand, such self-reference remains, as I have suggested, a form of reference. And indeed, it is perhaps the distinctively modern form of reference, ever since Descartes invoked the notion of doubt in order to determine the absolutely certain ground upon which the modern subject cold take its stand.
Excellence, like the Cartesian cogito, distinguishes itself from all others, above all from the objects of its representations, it divests itself of all content in order thereby to demarcate its own self-identity, henceforth to be determined in nothing but the process of representing as such, which is to say, in the process of doubting as opposed to the determination of that which is doubted. As its name suggests, doubting is duplicitous it doubles and splits itself off from what it doubts and in so doing, establishes a purely formal relation to its own performance. The grounding force of the Cartesian cogito, by which it attains certitude, resides in precisely this doubling, splitting and demarcating movement, which produces a kind of pure performativity, if one will, not so very different from that ascribed by Readings to the notion of excellence.
But this movement of splitting and doubling can only be imagined to come full circle and thereby to establish an absolutely sure and certain ground, beyond all doubt, if its circularity is supposed to transcend the distinctions of space and of time and thereby to move around the timeless center of a pure Ego, an instance of pure and immediate presence which does not require memory, recollection, repetition, in order to be present to itself. It is the center that enables an I to doubt everything except the fact that it is I who am doing the doubting: the point in which saying and doing do not simply converge but are always and already one and the same. It is precisely this dimension of temporality, however that returns to haunt the fantasy of pure self-identity and with it, the conception of a university that would be its institutional expression. And the manner in which it haunts that fantasy is by posing the question of the future: of a future that would not necessarily be comprehensible in terms of the past.
Readings identifies one such exemplary moment in the history of the American university. It occurs in what he calls the visionary conclusion to an address held at the inauguration of what was to become the quintessential American and modern research university, Johns Hopkins. T. H. Huxley, who had been invited to address Johns Hopkins on the occasion of its opening, ended his remarks with the following challenge: I constantly hear Americans speak of the charm which our old mother country has for them. But anticipation has no less charm than retrospect, and to an Englishman landing on your shores for the first time, there is something sublime in the vista of the future.
The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all of these things. What is to be the end to which these are to be the means? You are making a novel experiment in politics on the greatest scale which the world has yet seen. Although there is little reason today to be overly optimistic about the results of that experiment, it is the implications of Huxley's words that interest Readings, who glosses them as follows:
The United States as a nation has no intrinsic cultural content. That is to say, the American national idea is understood by Huxley as a promise, a scientific experiment. And the role of the American University is not to bring to light the content of its culture, to realize a national meaning: it is rather to deliver on a national promise, a contract.It is this lack of cultural content that has predestined America, Readings seems to suggest, to be the homeland of the most extreme form of capitalism the world has ever known. But at the same time it also marks the possibility of thinking the future as promise and as experiment. Of course, as soon as Readings qualifies the notion of experiment as scientific, it is subordinated to the teleology of a concept of knowledge bent on assimilating the other to the same, the strange to the familiar.
Scientific experimentation seeks to make the future calculable, controllable, falsifiable. And indeed, this notion of the experiment seems to be largely consonant with the way in which Huxley finally formulates the question he addresses to his listeners: What is to be the end to which these are to be the means? The answer that American society has traditionally supplied, to itself and to the world, is that the ultimate end is nothing other than the realization of capital as profit. All the technologies and tendencies of virtualization, therefore, are developed within a horizon that in a certain, profound sense restricts the very movement of virtualization itself: the horizon in which value can and must be actualized, realized as profit.
In this sense, the end of global capitalism continues the Cartesian project of reducing the world and the other to a means for the constitution of the identity of the same, of a subject of self-reflexivity, ultimately referring to nothing but itself, to its own performativity. Value has simply taken the place of doubt as the mechanism of this self-production. This is why it is so easy to merge the language of ethics and that of economics in terms such as accountability, responsibility ,transparency and value. For the bottom line is that of a formal movement of self-identification through self-reference, whether that of the cogito or that of value.
The scientific experiment is one variation of this movement: for it involves the establishment of procedures designed to render the unknown knowable, in the sense of being universally replicable. By being made universally replicable, a portion of the future is brought under control and its alterity made assimilable. But there is another kind of experimenting that does not follow the scientific assimilation of the unknowable to the known. It does not stand in the Cartesian tradition of searching to establish absolute certitude through universal doubt. Nor is its practice limited to the university.
Rather, it has often been undertaken in opposition to the rules and regulations of academic scholarship. I am thinking here but this is only one instance among many of the kind of experimenting practiced by Kierkegaard, for instance in his study of Repetition, which bears the subtitle: A Venture in Experimenting Psychology. On the margins of that text, Kierkegaard ironically responded to one of the most famous Danish academicians of the time, Professor J. L. Heiberg, who, in a book characterized scornfully by Kierkegaard as a golden Christmas present, had sought to portray the latters views on repetition as a theory of natural phenomena.
Kierkegaard responded, essentially, that the good professor had missed on small item: that his book was not a study of nature but rather a different kind of experiment. Kierkegaard invokes this notion as a necessary corollary of a temporality of repetition that excludes all immanence and cognitive control, in which reflexivity does not come full circle to produce a concept of itself, but instead doubles up into a language that can no longer be assigned to a single, authoritative speaker or to a reliable, truthful voice. Not that Kierkegaard was indifferent to concepts, cognition and voices - far from it. For Kierkegaard, experimenting has to do with the way concepts emerge and operate in a singular situation.
"I wanted to let the concept come into existence in the individuality and the situation," he wrote (Rep, 358).The situation he here describes could be described as a virtual situation: it is that of a text whose import only is accessible to a reading that moves it elsewhere; and it is that of a theater, in which the spectacle moves the spectator somewhere else. Experimenting, for Kierkegaard, is thus both theatrical and textual.
Readings seems to recognize a similar situation, especially when he seeks to describe what a university might be that would not be either that of Culture or that of Excellence, but rather what he calls a community of dissensus. And yet, whenever he tries to elaborate on this, he tends to see it in narrative terms. Readings, himself a reader, translator and interpreter of Lyotard, well aware of the exhaustion of Grand Narratives, himself has difficulty in escaping their lures.
"Intellectuals," he observes, pertinently, "tend to forget about the position of the listener in favor of worrying solely about the speaking position or position of enunciation." But when he then attempts to characterize in what such listening might consist, he asserts that to be spoken is to be situated within a narrative pragmatics. Again and again, you will notice, even in an observer as informed and astute as Readings, relationality is described in terms of immanence: to be within a narrative pragmatics? Why narrative? Perhaps because narrative is one of the most powerful means of appropriating and integrating externality into a space that seems to be self-contained.
One of the concluding chapters of Readings' book is thus entitled, Dwelling in the Ruins. To be sure, one does not dwell within: ruins as one does within the four walls of ones home. And despite his wavering, one of Readings' final statements demonstrates that he is well aware of the peculiar nature of university space and our relation to it:
We should not attempt to bring about a rebirth or renaissance of the University, but think its ruins as the sedimentation of historical differences that remind us that Thought cannot be present to itself. We live in an institution and we live outside it. We work there, and we work with what we have at hand. The University is not going to save the world by making the world more true, nor is the world going to save the University by making it more real. Change comes neither from within nor from without, but from the difficult space neither inside nor outside where one is.
To say that we cannot redeem or rebuild the University is not to argue for powerlessness: it is to insist that academics must work without alibis, which is what the best of them have tended to do. But if one concedes that we must both live in an institution and live outside it, how can one deny what Readings here, in a heroic gesture, seeks to dismiss, namely, with the alibi. Not necessarily with the alibi that seeks to prove ones innocence by establishing ones whereabouts elsewhere at the time of the crime.
But rather, the necessity of that alibi that marks the fact that one has to be in more than one place, more than one space at a time. And that this splits the one irrevocably into one and another, one and many others. This is perhaps the true story of the death of the hero which Readings sees only as the hero of culture, but which Kierkegaard sees as the subject tout court:
The hero in a novel is just about to make a remark when the author takes it out of his mouth, whereupon the hero becomes angry and says that it belongs to him and he shows that this remark is appropriate only to his individuality, and "if things are going to be like this, I just wont be a hero any more".What Kierkegaard's death of the hero moves toward is not a new narrative pragmatics, nor any sort of community, be it that community of dissensus that Readings, following Lyotard, envisages as a possible future for the university.
Rather, it is something more akin to a theatrical spectacle, and a very particular one at that. Neither tragic, nor even comic, but instead more akin to a farce. The German and Danish word for farce is: posse. And posse, as Kierkegaard reminds us, is also the Latin word for possibility:
The historical is always raw material which the person who acquires it knows how to dissolve in a posse, and assimilate as an esse [...] In my experimenting, I merely set the categories in motion in order to observe quite unconcernedly what they require without caring who has done it or can do it [...] without needing pageantry, scenery, many characters.I wish I had time to explore Kierkegaard's notion of experimenting more fully with you, but we will have to leave it at these somewhat enigmatic suggestions today.
The question I hope has begun to emerge is whether the kind of infinite attention to the other that Readings, citing Blanchot, imagines as the core of an alternative academic community of dissensus ? and which perhaps has always marked the one extreme of the acquisition of knowledge ? whether this alternate vision might not better be served by recalling how the posse that Kierkegaard attributed to what he called the situation of contemporaneity is perhaps more like the stage of a theater than the pews of a church: In a scientific-scholarly way it may indeed be quite properd perhaps so masterly that I am far from assuming to be a judge may be quite proper to ascend abstractly-dialectically in psychological categories from the psychical-somatic to the physical, to the pneumatic ... with respect to existence, thought is not at all superior to imagination and feeling but co-ordinate.
The co- of coordination or of contemporaneity is quite different from the co- of community, and be it one of dissensus. Rather, it is the co-ordination of what is irrevocably heterogeneous, in a space that resembles that of the posse: the possibility that perhaps will never fully become an esse, but which will remain virtual and an alibi. For the university, perhaps today more than ever, has to be in more places than one. As always, it confirms the existing order by reproducing exploitable knowledge. And yet, at the same time, it must also strive to be open to the unknowable as the enabling limit of what can be known.
One speaks often today, perhaps too often, of the cutting edge. We should never forget, however, that to cut, that edge must cut in more than one direction: not merely into the unknown, but into established knowledge as well. Herein, if anywhere, lies perhaps a possible future for universities which can neither dismiss the exigencies of globalization, nor fully accept its logic of appropriation. Such a university must keep itself open to the cutting edge of the future even if it means collecting a few scars along the way.
1. John Henry Newman, The Idea of the University, edited by Frank M. Turner, New Haven & London: Yale, 1996; F. R. Leavis, "The Idea of the University", in Education and University (1943), Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979; Jürgen Habermas, "The Idea of the University", in The New Conservatism, ed. and tr. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989. All cited in: Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard, 1996. - Back to the text.