Beyond Technocracy

Elio Di Muccio

It is hard to pin down precisely how and to what extent the University has become corporate, but it has, and to an ever growing extent. As a student of Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham it became clear to me that the university was, to all intents and purposes, a graduate employment distribution centre – or as I like to call it, “Job Centre + + ” – charged with creating skilled technical workers with no time or sentiment (left) for social critique, and with presenting a politics of labour to new generations of workers: curricula streamlined to match career requirements in the Culture Industry and the Market; a burgeoning obsession with ‘employability’ skills; increasing pressure on students to amass ‘work experience’, ultimately regulating individuals’ modes of life by selling them fabricated desires, career prospects and lifetime aspirations.

Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins explores the changes the ‘Modern University’ has undergone at a time of the erosion of values of ‘justice’ and ‘culture’: a time when, just as the ‘national’ is replaced by the ‘multinational’, and ‘old sovereign state’ by the collaboration of state and corporation, so the University’s ‘Pursuit of Culture’ is being replaced by ‘the Pursuit of Excellence’.

Readings divides his analysis of the ‘Modern University’ according to its three historical guiding ideas: the Kantian concept of reason, the Humboldtian idea of culture, and the current techno-bureaucratic notion of excellence. The Kantian University’s concern was the production of “the subject who is capable of rational thought and republican politics”; that of the German Idealists was founded on its status as the “site of critique” and ties the University to the nation-state through the development and inculcation of a national culture aimed at the maintenance of a well-oiled, rational, communicatively transparent public sphere. The final manifestation of the Modern University prior to the advent of the latter is the rise of Cultural Studies as the ‘model’ humanities, which Readings argues triggered a dereferentialization whereby the concept of culture ceases to mean anything because of its lack of referents once it is regarded as englobing everything by the practitioners of Cultural Studies.

This understanding of Cultural Studies posits that Culture is “no longer the terrain on which a general critique of capitalism can be carried out”, because conformity by means of dereferentialization homogenises difference. Like everything else, the University of Culture became corporate as a result of general, global trends towards privatisation, and has transformed into a post-industrial machine for the construction and inculcation of multiple identities as different means to the same end: capital.

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The changing University has taken steps to use media and technology as an enabling tool for education, research and communication. The increasing use of web-based learning systems means that the current generation of undergraduates – and therefore also the next generation of academics – have never had a non-digitally mediated experience of the University. As a result, the dimension of academic work has changed dramatically, affecting dialogue and publishing at speeds less traceable and contrastable; in Derrida’s terms, the University risks becoming a “branch office of conglomerates and corporations”, pushing to fund, control and streamline research and teaching towards their own commercial interests. Arguably this need not necessarily be seen in a negative light, but rather as enabling the abundance of potential funding resources for research, but it is clear, nonetheless, that the overall function of virtualisation has been the extension of the ability of the market to spread over the University: once again, capital.

The contemporary university, Readings argues, is “a survivor of the era in which it defined itself in terms of the project of historical development, affirmation, and inculcation of national culture… [it] is busily transforming itself from an ideological arm of the state into a bureaucratically organized and relatively autonomous consumer-oriented corporation… [in which] what exactly gets taught or produced as knowledge matters less and less”.

This claim finds no clearer supporting evidence than the position of the administrator, rather than the professor, as the central figure of the University of Excellence. Readings highlights, through the work of Jacques Barzun, that the challenge of the contemporary University is addressed to the administrator as such – a figure whose role in the Higher Education system is ultimately to view education (merely) in terms of how the production and distribution of knowledge will repay the costs in time and capital expended. The professor, meanwhile, is left to justify a life spent in the pursuit of objectives which, analysed in such terms, ostensibly produce little in the way of tangible returns.

This challenge is the “Pursuit of Excellence”, and it comes with a package: a corporate logo; University merchandise for the public expression of “symbolic belonging”, and the obsessive adoption of market research, following the customer service assumption that everything can be quantified in order to accumulate information relevant for the development of capital growth strategies.

Corporations have bought into established universities in a plethora of different ways, ranging from fellowships and investment in research, through to customised courses and sponsored chairs (see Smith and Webster, The Postmodern University? 1997, p. 107). In short, in the University corporations have seen the opportunity for a sound business investment: a rich abundance of raw material to be transformed into consumer products.

The HE Institution I attended – the University of Birmingham – cites “excellence” as one of its “five core values”: “we are committed to excellence at the heart of everything we do”, it claims[i]. Excellence in this sense is a value which is both technocratic and technological, in that it organises and manages the production of knowledge as a social activity in the service of capital. The discursive order of managerialism and administration in Higher Education, moreover, terrorises academics, creating a regime of self-surveillance of thought which ultimately strips social analysis of its critical substance. A deconstruction of this technocratic order is needed for the conceptualisation of a reversal.

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Adorno regarded technology as “an extension of human dexterity”, whose “means… are fetishized, because the ends are concealed and removed from the consciousness of people”. Indeed, this illusion of technology as fascinating in and of itself, and not through its practical utility, is hardly alien to the University, which narcissistically shows off machinery in classrooms like ancient artefacts in a museum. How is it that university managers could become so infatuated with this, and with the logic of capital?

With different economic sectors controlling the Culture Industry for the satisfaction of their own interests, the pressures that bring the “tendency to destroy the particular and the individual together with the power of resistance” did not leave the University untouched. Yet Adorno leaves a space – rightly – for human agency. The “neon lights” of advertisements, as he puts it, “do not come from the sky. They are controlled from Earth. It depends upon human beings themselves whether they will [be extinguished]”. In other words, human beings are potentially active agents against the self-imposed futility of the consumption of interchangeable sameness characteristic of the Culture Industry.

The suggestion here is not that students and professors could smash their computers and return to a more adequate university of the past – a return to a world of artisan production hardly seems a plausible alternative. Rather, Derrida’s answer to the question of technology is formulated on ‘ambivalence’: “We cannot be sure” he argues, “that the unity and identity of the thing called ‘book’ is incompatible with these new tele-technologies”. Extended to all aspects of life, the understanding of the book’s compatibility outlined in the chapter entitled ‘The Book to Come’ in Derrida’s Paper Machine provides an outlook of fruitful coexistence between the human and the machine. “The Book to Come” is intertextual: its texts are not finite, but boundless on international networks, and open to interactive interventions on them. Thus, new ways of writing and reading electronically transfigure the book with pagination on the screen, and readers turn into co-authors.

There will always be, points out Derrida, two fantasies regarding technology – the first to scrutinise carefully:

“…the new distance technologies of communication with the myth of the infinite book without material support, the myth of universalist transparency, of communication that is immediate, totalising, and free of controls, beyond all frontiers, in a sort of big democratic village”

… and the second to endorse:

“…the inevitable development of technologies whose advantages, as well, are obvious, not just in terms of efficiency and economy but also ethically and politically”.

This tension between the two fantasies is a war of rights and power which takes place in the book – in this case, it seems to me, signifying discourse in general. “The turbulence and impasses have, as always, a juridical and ethical-political form”, and zones without rights opened up by technological advancements must be properly explored and analysed rather than left alone or heavily criticised. So the student can keep her laptop after all, but on a condition.

Derrida argues that while the machine does not imply progress in terms of transparency, the practice of writing is not eroded by technology: it is only rewritten, not bypassed. Regarding transparency however, the computer creates the illusion of an unknown interlocutor: “I know how to make it work but I don’t know how it works… what rules it obeys”, says Derrida. This aspect alterates the speed and rhythm of writing, because the computer always anticipates us due to our ignorance of its workings; in return, it captures the speech of the Other without delay, because of its fluidity and spontaneity, through the augmented possibilities of quick revision, correction and metamorphosis of the text, which make the editing process eternal, and the text in constant mutation: in a word, ‘more open’. At the expense of the bodily closeness between text and author, writing becomes more democratic: more widely accessible in the public sphere. Technology is thus conceptualised by Derrida as being ethically and politically ambivalent, opening up a space for the possible technological organisation of the production of knowledge in the university without blocking the possibility of social critique.

University Without Condition

On this note, Derrida advanced a “profession of faith” in favour of the Classic-Modern University; a call for “New Humanities”, to be pursued “without condition”: “it would be necessary”, he writes, “to dissociate a certain unconditional independence of thought, of deconstruction, of justice, of the Humanities, of the University, and so forth from any phantasm of sovereign mastery”. This task is almost impossible, but the border between the possible and the impossible, and the equal possibility of success and failure, is for Derrida the very locus of resistance. And even though the Classical University has been largely involved in the construction of the condition of the human as an emancipated being, according to Derrida, because it has brought about critical dialogue, it is right for it to remain the primary location of deconstruction. Derrida thus outlines the necessary conditions for the taking place of the “event” (synonymous with change) in the University: where there is the performative, the event cannot arrive; it is predictable, and therefore controllable, masterable. There must instead be a sudden interruption.

Said ‘event’ is clarified in the notion of différance – in language, the construction of the totality of meaning of a particular sign through its differentiation from other signs. But because an interval needs to divide the present from the rest in order to constitute itself as such, différance – because it can only be spoken of and through language – is also differentiated (“are not the thought of the meaning or truth of Being… still intrametaphysical effects of différance?”). Thus, “that there is not a proper essence of différance at this point implies that there is neither a Being nor truth of the play of writing such as it engages différance”. This illuminates a risk in the return to the ‘taking place of an event’ necessary for a University Without Condition. The event can, paradoxically, actually disappear due to an appearance; the trace of difference can disappear “without a trace”. The self-assertion of presence, of an ‘absolute truth’, thus falls into a trap that blocks the possibility of change. In such a case, Derrida argues, we must put the ‘certainty of the self’ into question.

Readings sketches out another possible alternative along similar lines. He calls for an “institutional pragmatism”, moving away from the nostalgia of the University of Culture: a re-conception of pedagogy as a “network of obligations” towards ‘the Other’, and as “a question of justice, not a search for truth”. Standing on the shoulders of Derrida, Readings argues that the University should be conceived as “a space in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise, without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication”. The University thus becomes a space for the perennial questioning of orders, an “absence of models” of the ideal society, “where the question of being-together is raised”.

The key factor for making this change happen is that, as critical professionals, we must abandon nostalgia for the Modern University, which can act for academics as an alibi against action in the current crisis of Higher Education. “Practices of Thought and pedagogy” Readings argues, must “measure up to the situation, and accept that the existing disciplinary model of the humanities is on the road to extinction”. Even so, what better place than the University, where for a period of three years or longer, “the parties are caught in a dialogic web of obligations to thought”? A place in which one can still induce into a student/graduate the consciousness of a lifetime or a lifetime of research, and into the teacher and researcher new leads and developments in the making of knowledge?

Ultimately what Readings proposes is a series of “short-term collaborative projects of both teaching and research”, in which what it means to be involved in a particular discipline is a “permanent question”. Fundamentally he holds such strong hope for the practice of teaching because for him its participants in future generations will be thrust into a laboratory of coexistence useful to “allow the exploration of differences in ways that are liberating to the extent that they assume nothing in advance”.

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Any new developments in social critique are going to have to cultivate a collective better informed about inscription through technologies. This can only be achieved through the imagination of a discipline where radical politics and Science meet – in a space which will be much like a University. For such a discipline to exist, a theoretical framework for interdisciplinarity would have to be in place. As it stands, interdisciplinarity is a concept with minimal critical potential; a market tool, a consumer product to be sold to prospective students and for the joy of their parents: it is a mark of excellence. On the other hand, interdisciplinarity could be reconceptualised in the Academy as the acceptance of the different intellectual backgrounds of those entering unknown fields from the part of those already within them. Thus, its potential is to envelop students and staff alike in a classroom where they would be in a position to develop their ethical and political awareness, and keep them fundamentally open to questioning.

However, it is more plausible that such a project would enhance the possibility of cooperation exclusively among individuals with a similar political consciousness; these cooperative research/action groups would then plunge into a new free-for-all over the “ruined” but fertile ground for the cultivation of new values to be pursued that is the University. Thus, it is hard to imagine that a community of dissensus such as the University could successfully build a universal demand on the basis of an interdisciplinarity-to-come.

Nevertheless, interdisciplinarity is an imperative of the University of Excellence which remains open to becoming the material for a new immanent critique of capitalism after dereferentialisation. Within the University, therefore, the existing practical programmes of interdisciplinarity ought to be reappropriated around a progressive response to the capitalistic disciplinary reification which makes the contemporary University possible as a site of social instrumentalisation – transcending disciplinary boundaries in the attempt to merge social and natural sciences for the sake of the emancipation of human needs.

[i] In a confidential document entitled Sustainable Excellence, the University of Birmingham outlined its plans to become “a leading global university”:

“The phrase ‘sustainable excellence’ is designed to capture these dimensions of the exercise. We view these three aims as mutually inter-dependent. They will be achieved through a variety of methods:

(a) investment;

(b) income growth (particularly through postgraduate recruitment and increased research grant and contract income);

(c) performance management; and

(d) restructuring, disinvestment and cost savings”

(University of Birmingham. (2009) Sustainable Excellence, p. 3)