The university without culture?
IT IS VERY TEMPTING to see what Gerald Graff has called the "culture wars" as a,healthy sign that the debate on United States national culture is once more taking place where it ought to, in the university.(1) Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive, but to be tenured and approaching middle age seems very heaven!(2) Yet is the United States a "country in romance . . . where reason seems the most to assert her rights," like Wordsworth's revolutionary France? To put this another way, are the culture wars better understood as a prelude to a new modernity or as a postscript to the modern? Is this a new age dawning for the university as a project, or does it mark the twilight of its critical and social function? And if it is the twilight, then what does that mean?
After all, one of the most discussed books on postmodernity is Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, a study of the implications of the questions posed to the legitimation of knowledge by postmodernity, a study which is explicitly framed as a report on the university institution, "at this very postmodern moment that finds the university nearing what may be its end."(3) The question of the postmodern is a question posed to the university as much as in the university. Yet since the postmodern has by and large ceased to function as question and become another alibi in the name of which intellectuals denounce the world for failing to live up to their expectations, I prefer to drop the term for present purposes, in order to avoid confusion. The danger is apparent it is so easy to slip into speaking of the "postmodern university" as if it were an imaginable institution, a newer, more critical institution, which is to say, an even more modern university than the modern university.
At the moment I am more interested in diagnosis than in denunciation, in trying to understand why the debate on national identity in the United States has returned to the university. First of all, though, it is necessary to note that the debate is less specifically American than it might seem. Rather than being the result of any specific betrayal, it in fact draws its energies from an endemic condition of contemporary higher education.(4) That is to say, the American "culture wars" are one symptom of the fact that the decline of the nation-state as the primary instance of capitalism's self-reproduction has effectively voided the social mission of the modern university. That mission used to be the production of national subjects under the guise of research into and the inculcation of "culture," a "culture" which has always been thought, since Humboldt, in terms inseparable from national identity. The strong idea of "culture" arises with the nation-state, and we now face its disappearance as the locus of social meaning. Once the notion of national identity loses its relevance, the notion of culture becomes effectively unthinkable: the admission that there is nothing to be said about culture as such is evident in the rise of the quasi discipline of "cultural studies," symptom of that fact that culture no longer has a specific content. It seems to me that this scenario presents a series of options. Either we seek to defend and restore the social mission of the university by simply reaffirming a national cultural identity that has manifestly lost its purchase--the conservative position, or we attempt to reinvent cultural identity so as to adapt it to changing circumstances- the multicultural position.
A third option is to abandon the notion that the social mission of the university is ineluctably linked to the project of realizing a national cultural identity, which is tantamount to ceasing to think the social articulation of research and teaching in terms of a mission. This is a considerably more difficult proposition to accept for both the right and the left, since it means relinquishing our claim to be intellectuals and giving up the claim of service to society as a whole, the claim to both know and incarnate the true nature of society, behind which academics have masked their accumulation of symbolic capital for centuries. A number of factors incline me to think that this third option is the framework within which the future of the university as an institution is sketched out.
To speak of the university and the state is to tell a story about the emergence of the notion of culture. I have argued elsewhere that the university and the state as we know them are essentially modern institutions, and that the emergence of the concept of culture should be understood as a particular way of dealing with the tensions between these two institutions of modernity.(5) This will not simply be a history lesson, for it is prompted in large part by my own attempts to think about a strange contemporary coincidence. The coincidence I have in mind is a simultaneous decline and rise. On the one hand, there is the decline in the power of the university as an institution over the public sphere, with the concomitant elimination of the intellectual as a public figure. The intellectual no longer appears authoritative when speaking either from the university or outside of it--I differ with Russell Jacoby's moral arguments in The Last Intellectuals in that I see this as the elimination of a certain kind of speaking position rather than as a series of failures of subjective will.(6) Perhaps surprisingly, I shall argue that this is not necessarily bad news.(7) On the other hand, there is the recent rise of the quasi discipline of "cultural studies" within the university, which promises to install a new paradigm for the humanities that will either unite the traditional disciplines (this is Antony Easthope's argument) or replace them (this is Cary Nelson's argument) as the living center of intellectual inquiry, restoring the social mission of the university.(8) Perhaps surprisingly, I shall argue that this is not necessarily good news. It seems to me that the idea of cultural studies arises at the point when the notion of culture ceases to mean anything vital for the university as a whole. The human sciences can do what they like with culture, can do cultural studies, because culture no longer matters as an Idea for the institution. And along with culture goes the hero of the story, the individual intellectual who is capable of metonymically embodying the process of acculturation through which the subject achieves self-understanding as a cultured subject of culture. To put this another way, it is no longer possible for an individual subject to claim to "embody" the life of the mind--which has major implications for humanities research and teaching.
What I want to discuss is how we are to reconceive the university once the story of liberal education has lost its organizing center: the idea of culture as the object of the human sciences, both their origin and their telos. The contemporary university is busily transforming itself from an ideological arm of the state into a bureaucratically organized and relatively autonomous consumer-oriented corporation. The sign of this transformation is the way in which appeals to the notion of "excellence" drop from the lips of university administrators at every turn. To understand the contemporary university, we must ask what excellence means (or doesn't).
It is given to few of us in the humanities to experience the legitimation narrative of empirical positivism, but such has been my lot in writing about the question of excellence. A few months after I first gave a talk on the (in)significance of the concept of excellence, Maclean's, which would doubtless like to think of itself as the Canadian equivalent of Time magazine, brought out its third annual special issue on the universities of Canada. The November 15, 1993 issue, which purported to rank all the universities in Canada according to various criteria, was entitled, to my surprise: "A Measure of Excellence."(9) Now what this suggests to me is that "excellence" is not simply the equivalent of "total quality management" (henceforth TQM[TM]). That is, it is not just something imported into the university from business in the attempt to run the university as if it were a business. Such importations assume, after all, that the university is not really a business, but is only like a business in some respects. "Excellence" implies a quantum leap: the notion of excellence develops within the university, as the Idea around which the university centers itself, and through which it becomes comprehensible to the outside world (in this case, the middle and upper class of Canada).
Here is one example of this, in a letter to faculty and staff from a dean (William Sirignano, Dean of Engineering at the University of California at Irvine) complaining about his dismissal by the university president (Laurel Wilkening), as reported in the campus newspaper:
"The Office of the President and the central administration at the UCI campus are too embroiled in crisis management, self-service and controversy to be a great force for excellence in academic programs," Sirignano wrote in the Mar. 22 memo. He encouraged the new dean, department chairs and faculty to "create those pressures for excellence for the school." The transition in leadership "will be a challenge to the pursuit of excellence and upward mobility for the School of Engineering," he said. "It's not going to be easy to recruit an excellent dean in this time of fiscal crisis." (my italics)(10)
In a situation of extreme stress, and in order to oppose the university president, the dean appeals to the language of excellence with a regularity that is the more remarkable in that it goes unremarked by the staff writer covering the incident. Some sense of the distance we have traveled is apparent in the historical irony of the fact that this is a letter written to criticize the university on March 22, the very date recalled in the naming of the revolutionary movement in French universities in 1968 as "The Movement of March 22." Sic transit.
Today, all departments of the university can be urged to strive for "excellence," since the general applicability of the notion is in direct relation to its emptiness. I am grateful to Jonathan Culler for bringing to my attention a good example of how this works. The American university faculty has been defined as a loose association of people united by a common interest in parking, so it is perhaps the more significant that the Cornell University Parking Services recently received an award for "exellence in parking." What this meant was that they had achieved a remarkable level of efficiency in restricting motor vehicle access. As he pointed out, "excellence" could just as well have meant making people's lives easier by increasing the number of parking spaces available to faculty. The issue here is not the merits of either option, but the fact that "excellence" can function equally well as an evaluative criterion on either side: it has no content.
This is clearly what is going on in the case of the Maclean's article, where "excellence" is the common currency of ranking. Categories as diverse as the make-up of the student body, class size, finances, library holdings, can all be brought together on a single scale (see fig. 1). Not that this is entered into blindly or cavalierly by the magazine: with a scrupulousness of which the academic community could be proud, Maclean's devotes two whole pages to discussing how the rankings are arrived at. Thus, the student body is measured in terms of incoming grades, grade point average during study, the number of "out of province" students, and graduation rates within standard time limits. Class size and quality are measured in terms of student-teacher ratio, and the ratio of tenured faculty or part-timers or TAs. Faculty are evaluated in terms of the number with Ph.D.s, the number of award winners, and the number and quantity of federal grants obtained. The category of "Finances" judges the fiscal health of a university in terms of the proportions of the operating budget available for current expenses, student services, and scholarships. Library holdings are analyzed in terms of volumes per student, and the percentage of the university budget devoted to the library, as well as the percentage of the library budget dedicated to new acquisitions. Finally, "Reputation" combines the number of alumni who give to the university together with the results of a "survey of senior university officials and chief executive officers of major corporations across Canada" (40). The result is a "measure of excellence" arrived at by combining the figures at a ratio of 20 percent for students, 18 percent for class size, 20 percent for faculty, 10 percent for finances, 12 percent for libraries, and 20 percent for reputation.
MEDICAL/DOCTORAL STUDENT BODY UNIVERSITIES Average Properties Proportion Entering With 75% Who Grade Or Higher Graduate OVERALL RANKING LAST YEAR 1. McGill 1 2 1 2 2. Queen's 3 1 2 3 3. Toronto 2 5 6 1 4. UBC 4 3 3 12 5. McMaster 5 6 4 8 6. Calgary 11 11 12 15 7. Montreal 7 8 7 7 8. Dalhousie 6 7 9 9 9. Ottawa 8 9 13 4 10. Alberta 9 13 14 6 11. Western 10 9 8 10 12. Laval 14 14 11 13 13. Saskatchewan 13 4 5 14 14. Sherbrooke 12 12 10 5 15. Manitoba 15 15 15 11 MEDICAL/DOCTORAL STUDENT BODY UNIVERSITIES Out Of International Student Province (Graduate) Awards (1st Year) OVERALL RANKING LAST YEAR 1. McGill 1 1 4 2 2. Queen's 3 7 3 1 3. Toronto 2 12 10 3 4. UBC 4 5 6 6 5. McMaster 5 13 12 5 6. Calgary 11 6 7 15 7. Montreal 7 8 14 4 8. Dalhousie 6 2 13 8 9. Ottawa 8 3 9 9 10. Alberta 9 10 5 11 11. Western 10 11 15 13 12. Laval 14 4 1 7 13. Saskatchewan 13 14 2 14 14. Sherbrooke 12 15 8 12 15. Manitoba 15 9 11 10 MEDICAL/DOCTORAL CLASSES UNIVERSITIES Median Class Sizes Class Sizes: Class Size 1st and 3rd and 1st Year 2nd Year 4th Year Level Level OVERALL RANKING LAST YEAR 1. McGill 1 1 2 9 2. Queen's 3 15 9 2 3. Toronto 2 2 8 11 4. UBC 4 3 10 14 5. McMaster 5 8(*) 15 15 6. Calgary 11 11(*) 3 3 7. Montreal 7 7 4 10 8. Dalhousie 6 13 6 1 9. Ottawa 8 4 7 12 10. Alberta 9 5 11 13 11. Western 10 14 14 4 12. Laval 14 8(*) 5 6 13. Saskatchewan 13 11(*) 12 8 14. Sherbrooke 12 6 1 7 15. Manitoba 15 8(*) 13 5 MEDICAL/DOCTORAL CLASSES UNIVERSITIES Classes Faculty Taught By With Tenured PhD Faculty OVERALL RANKING LAST YEAR 1. McGill 1 2 1 2. Queen's 3 11 5 3. Toronto 2 7 4 4. UBC 4 9 11 5. McMaster 5 6 2 6. Calgary 11 12 6 7. Montreal 7 14 12 8. Dalhousie 6 4 8 9. Ottawa 8 1 3 10. Alberta 9 15 9 11. Western 10 8 10 12. Laval 14 3 14 13. Saskatchewan 13 10 13 14. Sherbrooke 12 13 15 15. Manitoba 15 5 7 MEDICAL/DOCTORAL FACULTY UNIVERSITIES Awards Per Humanities Medical Full-Time Grants Science Faculty Grants OVERALL RANKING LAST YEAR 1. McGill 1 4 3 1 2. Queen's 3 3 9 4 3. Toronto 2 1 2 3 4. UBC 4 6 4 2 5. McMaster 5 12 1 8 6. Calgary 11 9 12 10 7. Montreal 7 2 5 5 8. Dalhousie 6 11 11 13 9. Ottawa 8 5 7 7 10. Alberta 9 8 8 6 11. Western 10 10 10 11 12. Laval 14 7 6 9 13. Saskatchewan 13 15 15 12 14. Sherbrooke 12 14 14 14 15. Manitoba 15 13 13 15 MEDICAL/DOCTORAL FINANCES UNIVERSITIES Operating Scholarships Student Budget & Bursaries Services (Percentage (Percentage Of Budget) Of Budget) OVERALL RANKING LAST YEAR 1. McGill 1 3 7 15 2. Queen's 3 12 3 5 3. Toronto 2 9 2 3 4. UBC 4 2 9 13 5. McMaster 5 6 13 10 6. Calgary 11 8 4 4 7. Montreal 7 15 12 12 8. Dalhousie 6 11 1 6 9. Ottawa 8 5 8 2 10. Alberta 9 4 5 8 11. Western 10 7 10 1 12. Laval 14 1 11 14 13. Saskatchewan 13 13 6 9 14. Sherbrooke 12 14 15 11 15. Manitoba 15 10 14 7 MEDICAL/DOCTORAL LIBRARY UNIVERSITIES Holdings Acquisitions Expenses Per Student OVERALL RANKING LAST YEAR 1. McGill 1 11 14 12 2. Queen's 3 2 5 3 3. Toronto 2 8 9 1 4. UBC 4 5 8 11 5. McMaster 5 10 4 6 6. Calgary 11 3 7 8 7. Montreal 7 14 11 13 8. Dalhousie 6 12 1 10 9. Ottawa 8 9 10 9 10. Alberta 9 1 13 5 11. Western 10 6 6 2 12. Laval 14 15 12 15 13. Saskatchewan 13 4 3 4 14. Sherbrooke 12 13 2 14 15. Manitoba 15 7 15 7 MEDICAL/DOCTORAL REPUTATION UNIVERSITIES Alumni Reputational Support Survey OVERALL RANKING LAST YEAR 1. McGill 1 2 3 2. Queen's 3 7 4 3. Toronto 2 6 6 4. UBC 4 12 1 5. McMaster 5 10 2 6. Calgary 11 8 5 7. Montreal 7 3 8 8. Dalhousie 6 5 11 9. Ottawa 8 15 13 10. Alberta 9 13 7 11. Western 10 9 12 12. Laval 14 11 10 13. Saskatchewan 13 14 14 14. Sherbrooke 12 4 9 15. Manitoba 15 1 15 REPUTATIONAL WINNERS HIGHEST QUALITY 1. McGill 2. Queen's 3. UBC 4. Toronto 5. McMaster MOST INNOVATIVE 1. McMaster 2. Queen's 3. McGill 4. UBC 5. Calgary LEADERS OF TOMORROW 1. UBC 2. Calgary 3. McMaster 4. McGill 5. Queen's BEST OVERALL 1. UBC 2. McMaster 3. McGill 4. Queen's 5. Calgary
Figure 1. Table of rankings, Reprinted with permission from Maclean's, November 15, 1993, p. 31.
A number of things are obvious about this exercise, most immediately the arbitrary quality of the weighting of factors and the dubiousness of such quantitative indicators of quality. Along with questioning the relative weight accorded to each of the categories, we can ask a number of fundamental questions about what constitutes "quality" in education. Are grades the only measure of student achievement? Why is efficiency privileged, so that it automatically assumed that graduating "on time" is a good thing--how long does it take to become "educated"? The survey assumes that the best teacher is one who possesses the highest university degree and the most grants, who is the most faithful reproduction of the system, but what says that that makes a good professor? Is the best university necessarily the richest one? What is the relation to knowledge implied by focusing on the library as the place where it is stocked--is knowledge simply to be reproduced from the warehouse, or is it something to be produced in teaching? Why should senior university officials and the CEOs of major corporations be the best judges of "reputation"? What do they have in common--and isn't this compatibility worrying? Does not the category of "reputation" raise prejudice to the level of an index of value--and how were individuals chosen?
Most of these are what Lyotard calls "philosophical questions," however, in that they are systemically incapable of producing cognitive certainty, definitive answers. Such questions will necessarily give rise to further debate--they are, that is, radically at odds with the logic of quantification, with accounting. Criticism of the categories used and the way they are arrived at has indeed been leveled at Maclean's, as it has at the U.S. equivalent survey, and the magazine includes a further three-page article entitled "The Battle for the Facts," which portrays the heroic struggle of the journalists to find the truth despite the attempts of some universities to hide it. This essay also details the reservations expressed by a number of universities: for example the complaint of the president of Manitoba's Brandon University that "Many of the individual strengths of universities are not picked up in this ranking by Maclean's" (46). The president here argues only with the particular criteria, not with the logic of excellence and the ranking that it permits. And when the authors of the article remark that "The debate sheds a telling light on the deep unease over accountability," it does not refer to a critique of the logic of accounting. Far from it: any questioning of such performance indicators is positioned as a resistance to "public accountability," a refusal to be questioned according to the logic of contemporary capitalism, which requires "clear measures to establish university performance" (48).
Given this situation, to question criteria is necessary, yet a more general point needs to be made concerning the general compliance of universities with the logic of accounting: the fact that they and Maclean's appear to "speak the same language," as it were: the language of excellence. This survey is going on in Canada, a country where the different universities quite literally speak different languages. And behind the fact that the criteria are heavily biased in favor of anglophone institutions lies the fundamental assumption that there is a single standard, a measure of excellence, in terms of which universities can be judged. And it is excellence that allows the combination on a single scale of such utterly heterogeneous features as finances and the make-up of the student body. A measure of the flexibility of "excellence" is that it allows the inclusion of "reputation" as one category among others in a ranking which is in fact definitive of "reputation." The metalepsis that allows reputation to be twenty percent of itself is permitted by the intense flexibility of "excellence," which allows a category mistake to masquerade as scientific objectivity.
Most of all, "excellence" serves as the unit of currency within a closed field: the survey allows the a priori exclusion of all referential issues, any questions about what excellence in the university might be, what the term might mean. What it is, and the survey is quite explicit about this, is a means of relative ranking among the elements of an entirely closed system: "For the Universities, meanwhile, the survey affords an opportunity for each to clarify its own vision-and to measure itself against its peers" (40). "Excellence," that is, is a purely internal unit of value, which effectively brackets all questions of reference or function. Henceforth, the question of the university is only the question of relative value-formoney, the question posed to a student who is situated entirely as a consumer, rather than (for example) as someone who wants to think. The image of students browsing through university catalogues, where the world is all before them, where to choose, is a remarkably widespread one which has attracted little comment. I am not, of course, implying that the student should not get the chance to choose, but I think it is worth reflecting on what this image assumes. Most obviously, that of ability to pay. The question of access to tertiary education is bracketed, if tertiary education is perceived as a consumer durable, so that affordability or value for money becomes one category among others influencing an individual choice. Think of magazine consumer reports on which car to buy, and the way in which price is one factor among others, and the effect of the integration of heterogenous categories of ranking into a single "excellence quotient" becomes apparent.
However much this might scare us, everyone is for excellence. It functions not merely as the standard of external evaluation, but as the unit of value in terms of which the university describes itself to itself, achieves the self-consciousness that is supposed to guarantee intellectual autonomy in modernity. Given that, who could be against it? Under the rubric of excellence, interdisciplinary programs can be created, allowing the application of university-wide standards of straightforward and objective evaluation, so that we will all become more excellent. Is it surprising that corporations resemble universities, healthcare facilities, international organizations, which all resemble corporations?(11) Excellence responds very well to the needs of technological capitalism in the production and processing of information, in that it allows for the increasing integration of all activities into a generalized market, while permitting a large degree of flexibility and innovation at the local level. Excellence is thus the integrating principle that allows "diversity" (the other watchword of the university prospectus) to be tolerated without threatening the unity of the system.
The point is not that no one knows what excellence is, but that everyone has their own idea of what it is, and once it has been generally accepted as an organizing principle, there is no need to argue about differing definitions. Everyone is excellent, in their own way, and they will have more of a stake in being left alone to be excellent than in intervening in the administrative process. There is a clear parallel to the condition of the political subject under contemporary capitalism here. Excellence draws only one boundary, the boundary that protects the unrestricted power of the bureaucracy. And if a particular department's kind of excellence fails to conform, then it can be eliminated without apparent risk to the system. This has been, for example, the fate of many classics departments. It is beginning to happen to philosophy. The reasons for the decline of classics are of course complex, but they seem to me to have to do with the fact that they presuppose a subject of culture: the subject that links the Greeks to nineteenth-century German`; and legitimates the nation-state as the modern, rational reconstruction of the immediate and transparent communicational communists of the ancient polls. That the ideological role of this subject is no longer pertinent is itself a primary symptom of the decline of culture as the regulatory idea of the nation-state. Hence classical texts will continue to be read, but the assumptions that necessitated a department of classics for this purpose (the need to prove that Pericles and Bismarck were the same kind of men) no longer hold, so there is no longer a need to employ a massive institutional apparatus designed to make ancient Greeks into ideal Etonians avant la lettre.(12)
This shift is most evident in the United States, where the university has always had an ambiguous relation to the state. This is because American civil society is structured by the trope of the promise or contract rather than on the basis of ethnicity. Hence where Fichte's university project offers to realize the essence of a Volk (people) by revealing its hidden nature in the form of the nation-state, the American university offers to deliver on the promise of a rational civil society--as in the visionary conclusion to T. H. Huxley's address on the inauguration of Johns Hopkins University. It is worth quoting at some length the extended opposition between past and future, between essence and promise, that characterizes Huxley's account of the specificity of American society and the American university, so that he can speak of America as a yet-to-be-fulfilled promise even on the hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:
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, travelling for hundreds of miles through strings of great and well-ordered cities, seeing your enormous actual, and almost infinite potential, wealth in all commodities, and in the, energy and ability which turn wealth to account, there is something sublime in the vista of the future. Do not suppose that I am pandering to what is commonly understood by national pride.... Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. 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.(13)
Huxley himself, as Rector of Aberdeen, played an important role in the development of the Scottish university in the later nineteenth century, its independence from the Oxbridge model being marked by an openness to the natural sciences and medicine as disciplines and by the fact that it was not controlled by the Anglican Church. These two features make the Scottish university more clearly "modern," which is to say, closer to the American model. And Huxley's speech picks out the crucial feature that will define the modernity of Johns Hopkins, founded as an independent medical school: the fact that the United States as a nation has no intrinsic cultural content: merely a project of research. That is to say, the American national idea is understood by Huxley as a promise, a scientific experiment.(14) 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. This is what makes the canon debate a particularly U.S. phenomenon, since the establishment of cultural content is not the realization of an immanent cultural essence but an act of republican will: the paradoxical contractual choice of a tradition. Hence the form of the European idea of culture is preserved, but the cultural form has no inherent content. The content of the canon is grounded upon the moment of a social contract rather than the continuity of a historical tradition, and hence is always open to revision.
This is what allows Harvard to offer itself "in the service of the nation" or New York University to call itself a "private university in the public service." What such service might mean is always up for grabs. The idea of the nation, of the public, is always already an abstraction in America, resting on promise rather than on tradition. This is why "excellence" can most easily gain ground in the United States: since it is more open to the futurity of the promise than is "culture," and because the question of cultural content was already bracketed in the American university, as Judy points out, in the late nineteenth century. The contemporary advent of "excellence" is thus to be understood as the abandonment of the vestigial appeal to the form of culture as the mode of self-realization of a republican people as citizens of a nation-state-the relinquishing of the university's role as model of even the contractual social bond in favor of the structure of an autonomous bureaucratic corporation. Along the same lines, one can say that "globalization" is a kind of "Americanization," provided one realizes that this does not mean American national predominance but a global realization of the contentlessness of the American national idea. All will become American, perhaps, but only insofar as the enormous energy expended in attempts to isolate and define an "Americanness" in American Studies programs has been nothing more than an attempt to mask the fundamental anxiety that it in some sense means nothing to be American.
However, the United States is by no means alone in this movement. The British turn to "performance indicators" should also be understood as a step on the road toward the discourse of "excellence" that is replacing the appeal to "culture" in the North American university.(15) Indeed, a crisis in the university seems to be a defining feature of the "West," as is evidenced in the Italian students' movement of 1993, or the repeated French attempts at "modernization." Of course, it was the Faure plan for the modernization of the university that produced the events of 1968 in France. However, such attempts at modernization have continued, and the arguments presented recently by Claude Allegre in L'Age des Savoirs: Pour une Renaissance de l'Universite display a striking consonance with the developments that I have discussed in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Professor Allegre was the special counsellor to Lionel Jospin at the ministry of education from 1988-92, and his book is essentially an expose of the arguments guiding the reform of the French university, perceived as a locus of stagnation and resistance to change (an argument with which few could disagree). Interestingly, he argues that this drive to reform is "above all a resurgence of the aspirations of '68 . . . but a discreet and calm resurgence."(16) The question of whose aspirations is left undetermined, but it turns out that what 1968 meant, above all, was openness. And the twin characteristics of this new opening are, the reader will hardly be surprised to learn, "integration" and "excellence":
We tried to develop [reforms] by opening up a University that was folded in on itself and bringing it closer to the City.
Opening up the University to the City: this is its adaptation to professional needs.
Opening up the University to knowledges: this is the effort to renew research and to recognize excellence.
Integration of the University in its City: this is the University 2000 at the heart of urban planning, it is the policy of partnership with territorial groups.
Integration of the French University in a European ensemble: this is the meaning of European evaluation. (232)
The internal policy of the university is resolved by the appeal to excellence, which serves as the term which regroups and integrates all knowledge--related activities. This in turn permits the wider integration of the university as a corporate bureaucracy among others, both in the direction of the city and of the European community. The city is no longer the "streets," nor even a vision of civic life (the Renaissance citystate that Allegre's title might lead us to expect), it is an agglomerate of professional--bureaucratic capitalist corporations whose needs are primarily centered upon the supply of a managerial--technical class. The city gives the university its commercial form of expression. And the European community supplants the nation--state as the figure of the entity that provides the university with its political form of expression, an expression which is expressly tied to the question of "evaluation." The university will produce "excellence" in knowledges, and as such will link into the circuits of global capital and transnational politics without difficulty. This is because there is no cultural content to the notion of excellence, nothing specifically "French," for example. Thus, the emergence of the University of Excellence in place of the University of Culture can only be understood against the backdrop of the decline of the nation--state.
The vast majority of those who speak about the university adopt one of two positions: either nostalgic calls for a return to the Humboldtian ideals of community and social functioning, or technocratic demands that the university embrace its corporate identity and become more productive, more efficient. A resistance to the technological university that does not ground itself in a pious claim to know the true referent of the university, the one that will redeem it, is difficult to characterize. Mere disdain for appeals to "excellence" will not do: the contemporary geopolitical situation seems to me to disbar any thought of return to the levels of state funding that characterized the Western university during the cold war, when culture (in both the human and the natural sciences) was a field of superpower competition. And the ensuing economic pressures mean that we cannot hope to expand toward a fuller realization of the Humboldtian ideal, even if the narrative of national culture still had a subject that could act as its referent. The challenge of the present conjuncture is a difficult one, but I do not think that what is required of us is the building of a better institution, the production of another model of efficiency, another unified and unifying project. Being smart, in the present situation, requires another kind of thinking altogether, one that does not seek to lend work in the university a unified ideological function. What intervention can be made in the university today, as it abandons its role as the flagship of national culture, but before it embarks irrevocably upon the path of becoming a bureaucratic corporation? The university has to find a new language in which to make a claim for its role as a locus of higher education--a role which nothing in history says is an inevitably necessary one.
III. Accountability vs. Accounting
It is generally accepted that the three functions that determine the contemporary university are research, teaching, and administration. The last of these is of course the most rapidly expanding field in terms of the allocation of resources, and, as I have argued, its expansion is symptomatic of the breakdown of the German idealist contract between research and teaching. A great deal of the current attack on the university claims that a too--exclusive focus on research is harming teaching. As Gerald Graff has shown in Professing Literature, this complaint is as old as the modern university. However, the terms of its contemporary resurgence, are, I have suggested, different, in that the complaint is symptomatic of a more fundamental breakdown: the breakdown of the metanarrative that centers the university around the production of a national subject.(17) The university no longer has a hero for its grand narrative, and a retreat into "professionalization" has been the consequence. Professionalization deals with the loss of this subject--referent of the educational experience by integrating teaching and research as aspects of the general administration of a closed system: teaching is the administration of students by professors, research is the administration of professors by their peers, administration is the name given to the stratum of bureaucrats who administer the whole. In each case, administration involves the processing and evaluation of information according to criteria of excellence that are internal to the system: the value of research depends on what colleagues think of it, the value of teaching depends upon the grades professors give and the evaluations the students make, the value of administration depends upon the ranking of a university among its peers.
In these terms, the oft-repeated claim that the university is too research oriented, has given up on teaching, is in fact the product of a nostalgia for a subject whose "experience" might serve to register and synthesize the university as a whole--a student whose parcours could embody and unify higher education. As my earlier remarks on the "life of the mind" may have suggested, I would argue that this student has never in fact existed, and that 1968 proclaimed "his" nonexistence (among other things, by reminding us that the universal student was gendered). In discussing how to transvalue the dereferentialization of the university, how to divert the implacable dereferentializing process of capitalist bureaucracy into a way to make the university a more interesting place to be, I shall focus on the three levels of teaching, research, and administration. And I should like to be clear, the discourse of "excellence" has its advantages--it is what has permitted the speed with which feminism and African American studies have risen to powerful positions in the disciplinary order. The breakdown of the old disciplinary structure seems to me no great loss as such--it is a matter of in whose interest the changes occur. As a faculty member, I want us to be careful that the surplus-value released by the erasure of old job demarcations gets shared among the faculty and students, and does not simply accrue to the administration. A great deal of costs are saved, for example, by fusing the humanities under the rubric of "cultural studies" (support staff, teaching credits, physical plant, and so forth), and we have to demand that university administrators plow back these savings into funding pedagogical initiatives (such as short-term concentrations for teaching and research, mini humanities centers) that allow interesting work to be done.
I would want to address the question of research under the rubric of community--since what research has always produced is the knowledge that binds a community of scholars together, be it what counts as fact in the "culture of biochemistry" or the fundamental insights that ground the "republic of letters." Now that we can no longer make a redemptive claim for research, can no longer believe that the imagined community of scholars mirrors in microcosm the potential community of the nationstate, we have to think how to reimagine the notion of community itself. Here I would argue that, far from research giving unity and identity to a community, the process of research should invoke a dissensual community that has relinquished the regulatory ideal of communicational transparency, that has abandoned the notion of identity or unity. Rather than posing the question of research between fragmentary specialization as knowledge and organic synthesis as community, rather than repeating Schiller's argument from The Aesthetic Education of Mankind one more time, I shall attempt to sketch an account of the production and circulation of knowledges that imagines thinking without identity, that refigures the university as a locus of dissensus--a more radical and uncomfortable dissensus even than that proposed by Gerald Graff's call to "teach the conflicts." For, behind his laudable desire to displace the monologic authority of disciplinary discourse lies a desire for final consensus, the consensus that would permit the determination and transmission of "the conflict" as an object of professorial discourse.
Second, I want to call for a revaluation of teaching, specifically in relation to the question of time. The time of education is still addressed in general under the terms of a modernist metanarrative that has lost its purchase: the passage from ignorance to enlightenment in a particular span. Freud pointed out that education, like psychoanalysis and government, is an impossible profession, systemically incapable of closure.(18) And yet the treatment of pedagogic time as exhaustively accountable is a major feature of the push to excellence-"time to completion" is now presented as the universal criterion of quality and efficiency in education. Even though the Mellon report that caused the push for on-time completion of higher degrees in the United States and Canada has been discredited (the massive shortfall in professors occasioned by retirement that it predicted has been more than made up for by "downsizing"), the drive to push out Ph.D.s within four years continues unabated, despite the fact that there are no jobs for them to occupy, either in the university or elsewhere. As I asked rhetorically in discussing the Maclean's report: how long does education take? The question becomes the more pressing since the age of the student population is becoming less and less homogeneous, since returning students are becoming an important resource for the university, one whose admission requires that we rethink the temporal structure within which we imagine teaching as a process. We might ponder the fact that the drive to on-time completion of the Ph.D. is accompanied by instructions to faculty (at my university at least) to stop giving "incompletes" to graduate students, to hurry up and tell them that their studies are completed, to stop thinking. Now I am not arguing for some romantic ideal of eternal learning, merely suggesting that the complex time of thought is not accountable, is structurally "incomplete."
It is with regard to the institution that I think we need most urgently to rethink the terms within which we address the function of the university. In particular, the recognition that the university as we know it is a historically specific institution is one with which academics have a hard time coming to terms. History grants no essential or eternal role to the modern research university, and it is necessary to contemplate the horizon of its disappearance. Not to embrace the prospect of its vanishing, but to take seriously the possibility that the university, as presently constituted, holds no lien on the future. As I have suggested, the present model is in its twilight, and I do not think that we can continue to make redemptive claims for the role of the university of "culture," be that culture humanistic, scientific, or sociological. Rather than offering new pious dreams of salvation, a new unifying Idea, a new meaning and a renewed modernity for the university, I will call for an institutional pragmatism, one that recognizes that thought begins where we are, one that does away with alibis. By thinking without alibis, I mean ceasing to justify our practices in the name of an idea from "elsewhere," an idea that will release us from responsibility for our immediate actions. Neither reason, nor culture, no excellence, no appeal to a transcendence that our actions struggle to realize, in the name of which we can justify our deeds and absolve ourselves. Such a pragmatism, I shall argue, requires that we accept that the modern university is a ruined institution. Those ruins must not be the object of a romantic nostalgia for a lost wholeness but the site of an attempt to transvalue the fact that the university no longer inhabits a continuous history of progress, of the progressive revelation of a unifying Idea. Dwelling in the ruins of the university thus means a serious attention to the present complexity of its space, an endless work of detournement of the spaces willed to us by a history whose temporality we no longer inhabit. Like the inhabitants of some Italian city, we cannot seek to rebuild the Renaissance city-state, nor to destroy its remnants and install rationally planned tower-blocks, only to put its angularities and winding passages to new uses, seek to learn from and enjoy the cognitive dissonances that enclosed piazzas and nonsignifying campanile induce--and we have to worry about what our relation to tourism is. This pragmatism then involves two recognitions. First, an awareness of the complexity and historically marked status of the spaces in which we are situated, while recognizing that these are spaces that we cannot inhabit, from which we are alienated, so that neither nostalgia nor revived organicism are viable options. Second, a refusal to believe that some new rationale will allow us to reduce that complexity, to forget present complexity in the name of future simplicity.
Yet it is incumbent upon me to say something about the question of evaluation. The criterion of "excellence" has been the object of my scorn, but that does not mean that those in the university do not need to bother themselves with such matters, that evaluation is beneath our dignity. Rankings such as that proposed by Maclean's will continue to be published, and the question remains of how the calls for integration and productivity are to be answered. This is also the question of how funds are to be obtained in the face of two terrifying prospects: dwindling public funds and burgeoning interest among transnational corporations in universities as sites for investment. The administrators already have what seems to them an excellent answer to the question of evaluation, so that ignoring it will not make the question go away. The cancellation of the Superconducting SuperCollider project likewise indicates that the United States government is no longer concerned with superpower cultural rivalry for the biggest toys, something which means that the natural sciences are no longer able to write their own research ticket, to presume an infinite investment of the national will in the production of scientific knowledge.
Those in the university are called upon to judge, and the administration will do it for them by appeals to excellence if they do not respond to the call. Responding does not, however, mean proposing new criteria, but finding ways to keep the question of evaluation open, a matter for dispute--what Lyotard would call the locus of a differend.(19) Let us take the example of student evaluations, which are becoming more and more common in the universities of North America, and which are clearly linked to the repositioning of the student as a consumer of services. In order to permit standardization and integration under a common index of value, administrations push for the introduction of standardized multiple response questions across the board, which will allow the calculation of a quotient of consumer satisfaction, preferably modeled on the consumer survey.
Arguing against the use of such forms does not mean resisting the question of evaluation, merely the refusal to believe that the question of quality in education is susceptible of statistical calculation: a refusal to equate accountability with accounting. It seems to me that an argument can be made for the illegitimacy of such modes of evaluation on two counts. First, concerning the nature of the questions, which make a mistake in logic in presuming that evaluations can be directly deduced from descriptive statements--an illegitimate passage from the descriptive language game to the prescriptive, a confusion between a statement of fact and a statement of value. Hence for example, one of the questions proposed was "Did the professor respect the syllabus?" The statement presumes that such a state of affairs is automatically a good thing (respecting a contract), whereas we are, I think, entitled to suggest that it may be a good thing for a professor to tear up the syllabus and start again, if it seems pitched at the wrong level for the class. Such questions can of course be multiplied. So is the answer then for there to be only one question: "Did you think this was a good course?" Such a question will of course not solve the problem, since it immediately asks us to consider whether student pleasure is the absolute criterion of value--after all, learning may be a painful experience. In sum, I am arguing that no question of value can be asked that will exempt us from having to read the answer, and consider it in context; no evaluation does not itself have to be evaluated.
The second order of problem concerning the evaluation of teaching is linked to this: the positioning of the student as sole judge of the quality of education, and the assumption that such a judgment can be quantified--the logic of consumerism. The answer to the question of student evaluation seems to me a model for an approach to the question of evaluation as a whole. First, it is necessary to recognize that what is called for is an act of judgment, hence one that is embedded within a discursive or pragmatic context--a context that must be acknowledged when the judgment delivered is in its turn judged. Second, we must recognize that the question of what is to be done with such evaluations, how they are to be understood, is itself a matter for further judgment. No judgment is final, there is always another link in the chain--questions of value are systemically incapable of closure. Third, the judge at each stage in the process must be called upon to take responsibility for the judgment delivered, rather than hiding behind a statistical pretension to objectivity.
What then, are the practical implications of this questioning of the process of evaluation? First. those in the university have to speak among themselves and to others in terms that acknowledge the complexity of the problem of quality. In fact, the question of value can be complexified without an automatic loss of public comprehensibility--as the relative popularity of figure skating at the winter Olympics, compared with sports in which the winner is established beyond question by a temporal calculation, suggests.
Thus, what is required is a simultaneous recognition both that the question of evaluation is finally unanswerable and that it is essential. That is to say, unanswerability is no excuse for ignoring the question. The late Paul de Man gave us the terms of a literary analysis that recognized the reading of literature as a necessary and impossible task--the same is true of the evaluation of universities. Students would be required to write evaluative essays which can themselves be read and which require further interpretation, instead of ticking boxes and adding up point-scores. The further interpretation and judgment of such evaluations will take time, but it will not take time away from the "real business of the university" (understood as transmitting and producing knowledge). For such evaluation, judgment and self-questioning is the business of the university. This is an instance of what I mean by the transvaluation of dereferentialization--he absence of a referent becomes the holding open of questioning, an exercise of patience. Thus universities should, as it were, be required to write essays in evaluation, not to elaborate mission statements which are all the same from university to university and then quantify how far they have lived up to them. This will mean a lot of work for university presidents, but I for one would rather have them thinking about questions of value than juggling indices of excellence and filling in charts of "goal achievement." I do not think it is too much to expect that those concerned with evaluation, at every stage of the process, from student to president, be capable of facing up to fundamental questions concerning the nature of value and quality, and nor do I think that the time spent in such reflection will be wasted. "Writing an essay" is of course a metaphor here, a metaphor for producing a judgment of value that seeks to grapple with and take responsibility for itself as a discursive act. This taking of responsibility thus invokes an accountability that is radically at odds with the determinate logic of accounting, since it argues that taking responsibility for one's actions involves an obligation which exceeds the subject's capacity to calculate, which does not understand responsibility as a matter solely for the subject, a matter that can be calculated by a more self-conscious subject. If we recognize that all judgments are discursive acts, in this sense, we can understand their complexity by means of phrase-analysis. Such writing means an engagement with the variables of the judge's position as emitter of the judgment (asking "Who am I to judge?"), with the question of the recipient of the judgment ("Who is this addressed to, and what difference does that make?"), that of the referent of the judgment ("What am I claiming to judge?"), and that of the meaning of the judgment ("What is the significance of the criteria implied by this judgment?"). And the whole judgment is itself delivered, not as a statement of fact, but as a judgment, to be judged by others in its turn. This will not mean that the judgments are any less effective in the world, merely that they are not final. Hence their effects are themselves up for discussion, and the work of judgment is understood in relation to a continuing discussion rather than a finality (much as we continue to discuss the judgments delivered by figure-skating judges, even after the event).
IV. The Role of the Humanities
Up to this point, my description of the current situation may seem to have rather dire consequences for the university in general and for the humanities in particular. However, this is by no means the case. A certain amount of crystal-ball gazing might lead us to want to say things such as: the humanities will in twenty years time no longer be centered in the study of national literatures, and these predictions might prove more or less correct. However, my argument is less concerned with the precise disciplinary shape that the university of the twenty-first century will assume than with what that shape will mean, which is to say, how it will be given meaning as an institutional system. This is why my analysis thus far has tended to ignore the uneven and combined development that is the actual form of appearance of the tendencies that I have sought to isolate, and it is also the reason for my own habit of privileging universities' self-descriptions (such as prospect)) over empirical study in the analysis of how universities work. I will cheerfully admit that in all probability far less will change in the daily life of professors and students than one might expect--it will take a lot more than "excellence" to get some colleagues to change their syllabi. However, significant shifts are taking place in the way in which quotidian practices are organized and ascribed meaning, taking place at a remarkably intense rhythm (I say rhythm rather than speed, since these shifts are not linear but interruptive). I have, for purely heuristic purposes, subsumed these shifts under the name of "dereferentialization"--a decline in the ideological function of the university that is intimately linked to the symptomatic rise of ideology-critique as methodology inside the university.
However, this process of dereferentialization is not an alibi for retirement from the field. Quite the contrary--it seems to me that an engagement with and transvaluation of this shift can allow innovative and creative thinking to occur (which does not imply that this thinking is the instrumental activity of a subject). On this score, however, we have to address two issues: the place of the university in society at large, and the internal shape of the university as an institution. Within modernity, the university held a central place in the formation of subjects for the nation state, along with the production of the ideology that handled the issue of their belonging to that nation-state ("culture"). Its internal organization as a community was meant to reflect that structure of belonging, a community in which a general culture of conversation held together diverse specialities, in a unity that was either organic (Fichte), societal (Newman), or transactional (Habermas).
In this sense, the university held the promise of being a microcosmic model of the organization of the nation-state. What can be done with and in a university that, along with the nation-state, is no longer central to the question of common symbolic life (it is not clear, however, in what terms we can still usefully speak of common symbolic life)? This involves two questions: that of the institution's function as an institution, and that of the community that the institution may harbor. I shall not argue for either a new institution or a new community, but for a rethinking of both terms. If my preference is for a thought of dissensus over that of consensus, it is necessary to realize that dissensus cannot be institutionalized, because the precondition for such institutionalization would be a second-order consensus that dissensus is a good thing, something, indeed, with which Habermas would be in accord. Something like this latter tendency is what makes me dissatisfied with Gerald Graff's powerful arguments in Teaching the Conflicts.
For my part, I will propose a certain pragmatism, a pragmatism that does not simply accept the institution's lack of external reference and glory in it (as does Stanley Fish in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech), but one that tries to make dereferentialization the occasion for detournements. Such moves may be critical, but they will not appeal to a transcendent self-knowing subject capable of standing outside his or her own behavior and critiquing it: they will be transgressions rather than critiques of the institution. Such an institutional pragmatics will be without alibis, without "elsewheres," a truth whose name might be invoked to save us from responsibility for our actions. Here lies another difference with Fish and Rorty: this is a pragmatism which does not believe that it adds up to its own alibi, that its denial of the grand narratives is not itself a project. To put this another way, being a good pragmatist is not in itself a guarantee that one will always be right--it may be pragmatic to abandon pragmatism, so pragmatism cannot function as if it were a project in the modernist sense, as Rorty and Fish seem to hope. Hence institutional practices--even in an institution stripped of platonic illusions--cannot be their own reward. If I have certain principles (more accurately, certain habits or tics of thought), they are not grounded in anything more foundational than my capacity to make them seem interesting to others (which is not the same thing as convincing other people of their "rightness").
Institutional pragmatism thus means, for me, recognizing that the university today is what it is, an institution that is losing its need to make transcendental claims for its function. The university is no longer simply modern insofar as it no longer needs a grand narrative of culture in order to work. As a bureaucratic institution of excellence, that is, it can incorporate a very high degree of internal chaos without requiring to unify the multiplicity of diverse idioms into an ideological whole. Their unification is no longer a matter of ideology, but of their exchange value within an expanded market. This deprives disruption of any claim to automatic radicalism, just as it renders radical claims for a new unity susceptible to being swallowed up by the empty unity of excellence. Those of us who, like me, have found the university a place where the critical function has in the past been possible, have to face up to the fact that our current gains in critical freedom (unimaginable shifts in the institutional face of new programs, and so forth) are being achieved in direct proportion to the reduction in their general social significance. This is not in itself any reason to abandon projects for change or innovation--far from it--but what is required is that we do not delude ourselves as to their significance, that we do not satisfy ourselves with rebuilding a ghost town. Energies directed exclusively toward university reform risk blinding us to the dimensions of the task that faces us--in both the humanities and the natural sciences--the task of rethinking the categories and modalities of intervention that have governed intellectual life for over two hundred years.(21)
We have to recognize that the university is a ruined institution, while thinking what it means to dwell in those ruins without recourse to romantic nostalgia. The trope of ruins has a long history in intellectual life. The campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo is decorated by some artificial concrete ruins which allude to Greco-Roman temple architecture, something which might seem incongruous in North America, were it not that it coincides with a history that I have already sketched: that of modernity's encounter with "culture" as the mediating resynthesis of knowledges so as to return to the primordial unity and immediacy of a lost origin (be it the total sunlight and dazzling whiteness of an artificial antiquity or the earthy social unity of the Shakespearean Globe). This story has been with us since at least the Renaissance (which actually took place in the nineteenth century, as the nostalgia of Burckhardt, Pater, and Michelet for an originary moment of cultural reunification)--and I have discussed its incarnations elsewhere.(22)
To return to my analogy of the Italian city, this means neither razing the old to build a rational city on a grid, nor believing that we can make the old city live again, return to the lost origin. The question that is raised by the analogy is how we can do something other than offer ourselves up for tourism--the humanities as cultural manicure, the natural sciences as the frisson of real knowledge and large toys. If this process seems more advanced in the humanities, this may only be a matter of funding--induced perspective--how much does our vision of what science education does owe to Disney?
The cancellation of the Superconducting SuperCollider suggests that the end of the Cold War does not simply have effects on the readiness of States to fund national competition in the realm of humanistic culture. Indeed, there is an increasing problem with the question of what education in the natural sciences might consist of: to what kind of subject it might be directed. Information technology combines with the drying up of funds to suggest that there may no longer be an open market for graduate students, while vocational engineering schools seem more adapted to the market. Hence, the question of to whom an education in physics or chemistry may be directed has no obvious answer, while American physics departments in particular may have as much reason as the humanities to fear trial by "marginal utility" or "market forces" in funding battles, once there is no longer a quasi inexhaustible defense budget (incidentally, the highest percentage of postgraduate unemployment is not in the humanities, but among physics majors).
All of which suggests that the dualist split between humanities and natural sciences that has been the most apparent structural reality of the university in the twentieth century is no longer the practical certainty it once was. Not that it has been ever so: English was initially perceived in the United States as a practical and business--like alternative to the classics.(23) Of course, as Graff points out, the study of English literature was soon professionalized under the German model of Geisteswissenschaft as an autonomous field of research, in order that its teaching might accede to the dignity of a "science," a field of knowledge.
I have already dropped dark hints about the fate of departments of philosophy, which seem to be heading down the path of the classics, once the sumptuary laws that made a university without a strong philosophy department unthinkable have been dropped in favor of market imperatives. This may not be a bad thing, since this does not necessarily mean that a set of questions about the nature and limits of thinking, about the good life, and so on, that were once asked under the heading of philosophy have ceased to be asked. It simply means that nothing in contemporary society makes it evident that individuals should be trained to ask such questions. Instead, philosophy departments are spinning off into applied fields in which experts provide answers rather than refining questions--medical ethics being the most obvious example, not least because the boom in medical ethics is the product of the interaction between biomedical technology and the economics of the American medical insurance "system."
Responsibility for questioning seems to have devolved onto literature departments insofar as those departments are themselves increasingly abandoning the research project of national literature--so that "English and Comparative Literature" tends to function in the United States as a catch--all term for a general "humanities" department (and is likely for that reason to be gradually replaced by the less weighted title, "Cultural Studies"). It is worth thinking about why "Cultural Studies" should win out over the traditional designations of "History of Ideas" or "Intellectual History." This has to do both with their relationship with the existing research project of the history department and also with the extent to which the term "studies" acknowledges the fact that the professionalization of the academy today is no longer structured by research into a central "idea." To put this another way, the idea of culture in Cultural Studies is not really an "idea" in the strong sense proposed by the modern university. Cultural Studies, that is, does not propose culture as a regulatory ideal for research and teaching so much as recognize the inability of culture to function as such an "idea" any longer.
I am frankly not equipped to trace the parallel processes that may emerge in the natural sciences, but the apparent horizon in arts and letters for the North American university can be roughly sketched as the development of an increasingly interdisciplinary general humanities department amid a cluster of vocational schools, vocational schools which will themselves include devolved areas of expertise traditionally centered in the humanities, such as media and communications. This is of course a historical irony, since it has striking similarities to the original plan of many land--grant universities, before most of them bought into the research university model as the way to acquire increased prestige and concomitant funding. Such a horizon of expectation is already being marketed to us under the slogan of the "Liberal Arts College within the University of Excellence." Needless to say, the liberal arts college is invoked here less in terms of its pedagogical tradition than in terms of its potential attraction to consumers.
Such is the "role" that the humanities are called upon to play in the University of Excellence, one that wavers between consumer service (the sense of individual attention for paying students) and cultural manicure. And the claims for scientific research in the humanities, for a Geisteswissenschaft, that have, through the history of the modern university, assured a dignity to the humanities, no longer find themselves reflected in and guaranteed by a guiding idea of culture for the university as a whole. Hence it is not the research model, I fear, that will save the humanities (or indeed the natural sciences), since the organization of the humanities as a field structured by a project of research no longer appears self-evident (with the decline of the nation-state as the instance that served as origin and telos for such organization). In a general economy of excellence, the practice of research is of value only as an exchange value within the market, it no longer has intrinsic use-value for the nation-state.
The question remains of how the call of thought may be addressed within the university. We should be clear about one thing: nothing in the nature of the institution will enshrine thought or protect it from economic imperatives--and such a protection would in fact be highly undesirable and damaging to thought. But at the same time, thinking, if it is to remain open to the possibility of thought, to take itself as a question, must not seek to be economic--it belongs rather to an economy of waste than to a restricted economy of calculation.(24) Thought is nonproductive labor, and hence does not show up as such on balance sheets except as waste. The question posed to the university is thus not how to turn the institution into a haven for thought, but how to think in an institution whose development tends to make thought more and more difficult, less and less necessary. If we are not to make this into an analogy for the waning power of the priesthood--faced by unbelief on the one hand and television evangelism on the other--this requires us to be very clear about our relation to the institution, to give up being priests altogether. In other words, the ruins of the university must not be, for students and professors, the ruins of a Greco-Roman temple within which we practice our rites as if oblivious of their role in animating tourist activities and lining the pockets of the unscrupulous administrators of the site.
Here I want to return to what I said about the problem of evaluation. The challenge that faces those who wish to preserve the task of thinking as a question is a difficult one, which does not admit of easy answers. It is not a question of coming to terms with the market, establishing a ratio of marginal utility that will provide a sanctuary--such a policy will only produce the persistant shrinking of that sanctuary, as in the case of old growth timber in the United States. How many philosophers, or redwoods, are required for purposes of museification? If both the grand project of research and the minimal argument of species preservation are likely to prove unsuccessful, it seems to me necessary that our argument for certain practices of thought and pedagogy must measure up to the situation and accept that the existing disciplinary model of the humanities is on the road to extinction. Within this context, a certain opportunism seems prescribed--to dwell in the ruins of the university is to try to do what we can, while leaving space for what we cannot envisage to emerge. For example, the argument has to be made to administrators that resources liberated by the opening up of a general interdisciplinary space, be it under the rubric of the humanities or of cultural studies, should be channeled into supporting short-term collaborative projects of both teaching and research (to speak in familiar terms) which would be disbanded after a certain period, whatever their success.(25) Within this context, it would be first necessary to make some very firm deal about hiring prospects on the basis of an overall ratio of tenured faculty to students rather than, as now, on the rather specious basis of "disciplinary coverage" (it is remarkable how few departments of English, for example, actually turned out to "need" as many medievalists as they once did).(26) I have a certain diffidence about such plans as this, which always smack of bad utopianism, since there is no general model, merely a series of specific local circumstances--I supply these suggestions merely in the interest of attempting to find possibilities in the current (and, I think, implacable) bourgeois economic revolution in the university that work in the service of thought. It is essential to understand that this is not a move of "big politics," not an attempt to divert the process toward another result, a different end. Rather, it seems to me, recognizing the university as ruined means abandoning such teleologies and attempting to make things happen within a system without claiming that such events are the true, real meaning of the system. The system as a whole will probably remain inimical to thought, but on the other hand the process of dereferentialization is one that liberates new spaces and breaks down existing structures of defense against thought even as it seeks to submit thought to the exclusive rule of exchange value (like all bourgeois revolutions). Exploiting such possibilities is not a messianic task, but since such efforts are not structured by a redemptive metanarrative, they require of us the utmost vigilance, flexibility, and wit.
Given the prospect of such a generalized disciplinary regroupment, it seems to me necessary that we engage in a consideration of how the university might function as a place where a community of thinkers dwells, with the proviso that we rethink critically the notion of community, so as to detach it from both the orrganicist tradition and the feudal corporation. On this basis, it may become possible to transvalue the process of dereferentialization. The terms for such an archipelago of minor activities remain to be found or made up. If we do not try to pose the question of how to think in the humanities without reference to the idea of culture, then the bureaucracy will answer it for us, will provide what already seems to them an excellent answer.
(1) Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York, 1992).
(2) Since the right wing assures us that we are all utterly devoid of culture, and since I can never remember quotations myself, I had best point the reader to Wordsworth's Prelude, book XI, II. 693-94 or 118-19, depending on your edition.
(3) Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, tr. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, 1984), p. xxv.
(4) As Michael Peters remarks: "To say that the university in Western society is in a state of crisis is simply to echo the thoughts and sentiments of a generation of post-war commentators. The word `crisis,' accordingly, has lost almost any conceptual purchase" (see "Performance and Accountability in 'Post-industrial Society': The Crisis of British Universities," Studies in Higher Education, 17 , 123-40).
(5) See my essay, "For a Heteronomous Cultural Politics: The University, Culture, and the State," The Oxford Literary Review, 15 (1993), 163 200, to which the present essay is something of a companion piece. Both are closely related to my current book project, provisionally entitled Beyond Culture
(6) See Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York, 1987). As Bruce Robbins points out, Jacoby's image of a "gloriously independent" intellectual role is a fiction (Bruce Robbins Introduction, Intellectuals: Aesthetics, Politics, Academics [Minneapolis, 1990], p. xv). However, I do not share Robbins's belief that a materialist analysis of culture will save the universal role of the intellectual by giving him or her a new narrative--as will, I think, become clear.
(7) On the decline of the figure of the intellectual, see Jean-Francois Lyotard, Political Writings (Minneapolis, 1993). Two further fine explorations of this topic appear in the electronic journal Surfaces, 2 (1992): Bruce Robbins, "Mission Impossible: L'intellectuel sans la culture" and Paul Paul "The Intellectual as a Contemporary Cultural Phenomenon" (available by FTP transfer from firstname.lastname@example.org).
(8) See Antony Easthope, Literary Into Cultural Studies (London, 1991) and Cary Nelson, "Always Already Cultural Studies: Two Conferences and a Manifesto," Journal of the Midwestern Modern Language Association 24 (Spring 1991).
(9) Maclean's 106, no. 46 (Toronto, 15 Nov. 1993); hereafter cited in text.
(10) Phat X. Chem, "Dean of Engineering Forced Out," New University, 27 (4 April 1994).
(11) Foucaults's chapter on "Panopticism" ends with the following ringing rhetorical questions: "The practice of placing individuals under 'observation' is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?" (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, tr. Alan Sheridan [New York, 1979], pp. 227-28).
The notion of excellence, functioning less to permit visual observation than to permit exhaustive accounting, works to tie the university into a similar net of bureaucratic institutions.
(12) Hence ancient texts can now be read in considerably stranger ways, ways that recognize historical discontinuity without immediately recuperating it in terms of a Fall narrative as "the glory we have lost." One of the more striking examples of this is the contemporary recognition by thinkers such as Lyotard, that Aristotle's notion of the "golden mean" and of phronesis have nothing to do with the assumptions of democratic centrism--producing a much more politically radical account of Aristotle's call for prudent judgment on a case-by-case basis. The point that Aristotle makes in the Nichomachean ethics is that the mean is refractory with regard to the individual and that no rule of calculation will allow the judge to arrive at it, since what constitutes prudent behavior radically differs from case to case. I have discussed the political implications of the "revolutionary prudence" in "PseudoEthica Epidemica: How Pagans Talk to the Gods," Philosophy' Today (1992), 377-88.
(13) "1876 Address on University Education (delivered at the opening of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore)," in T. H. Huxley, Science and Education, in Collected Essays, III (London, 1902), pp. 259-60.
(14) Ronald Judy, in the short history of the American University with which he prefaces (Dis) Forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular (Minneapolis, 1993), also situates the foundation of Johns Hopkins as a crucial fuming point which defines the specificity of the American university. As Judy remarks: "These movements towards academic professionalization and instrumental knowledge reached their culmination with the incorporation of Johns Hopkins University in 1870, or, more precisely, with the appointment of Daniel Coit Giilman as its president in 1876. Gilman made Johns Hopkins a model research institution where the human and physical sciences (Naturwissenschaften) flourished as disciplined methodologies" (p. 15). Judy's account differs slightly from mine in that he associates the founding of Johns Hopkins with the very bureaucratic ideology of methodological specificiity that undermines the possibility of general culture--a bureaucracy which I locate as the distinguishing trait of the university of excellence. Hence he argues that the disciplinary specificity of the humanities curriculum arises in the late nineteenth century, "at precisely that moment when the humanities were no longer required to respond to the demand for relevance," pointing to David S. Jordan's institution of the first English degree at Indiana University in 1885 (p. 16) Judy calls this "the professionalization of the human sciences" and links it to the development of an overarching "culture of bureaucracy" that unites the human and the natural sciences under a general rubric of professionalization (p. 17). He is thus telling a story quite comparable to my own concerning the replacement of the general idea of culture by a generalized bureaucracy, except that he locates it in the latter half of the nineteenth century rather than in the latter part of the twentieth. Our disagreement is, I think, less historical than cartographical. I am concerned to introduce a transitional step into the passage from the modern German university of national culture (within which "culture" was the object of professionalized research projects) to the bureaucratic university of excellence, one which positions the United States university as the university of a national culture that is contentless. Hence I think there is a distinction to be drawn between the referential professionalism of the University of Culture and the dereferentialized bureaucracy of the University of Excellence.
(15) An account of the debate over "performance indicators" is provided in Peters, "Performance and Accountability in Post-Industrial Society."
(16) Claude Allegre, L 'Age des Savoirs: Pour une Renaissance de l'universite' (Paris, 1993), p. 232; hereafter cited in text. Translations are my own.
(17) On the topic of professionalization, see Samuel Weber's fine reading of Bledstein in Institution and Interpretation (Minneapolis, 1989). His analysis is somewhat more convincing than John Guillory's rather anachronistic attempt to see literary theory as "professionalization" of literary studies. Guillory underestimates the marketing skills of the New Critics John Guillory, Cultural Capital [Chicago, 1993]).
(18) Sigmund Freud, "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and tr. James Strachey (London, 1953-74), XXIII, pp. 216-53.
(19) On differend, see my Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics (London, 1991).
(20) Stanley Fish, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech (New York, 1994). For an important argument for another kind of pragmatism than Fish or Rorty's, see Samuel Weber's Institution and Interpretation (Minneapolis, 1987), from which I borrow much.
(21) One simple example: for a consideration of the way in which the Internet threatens to delegitimize the structure of scholarly publishing, see my "Caught in the Net Notes from the Electronic Underground," Surfaces, 4 (1994), available via gopher from the Universite de Montreal gopher site (anonymous FTP server).
(22) See my "When did the Renaissance Begin?" in Rethinking the Henrician Era, ed. Peter Herman (Chicago, 1993) for a more developed account of the invention of the Renaissance and the question of the visibility of history.
(23) See Gerald Graff, Professing Literature (Chicago, 1987), pp. 19-36.
(24) See Georges Bataille, "La notion de depense," in La part maudite (Paris, 1967) for the origins of this distinction.
(25) I say "whatever their success" because of my belief that such collaborations have a certain half-life, after which they sink back into becoming quasi departments with budgets to protect and little empires to build. That is to say, they become modes of unthinking participation in institutional-bureaucratic life.
(26) My remarks about coverage are no slur to medievalists in particular: I think that the twilight of modernity makes the premodern a crucial site for understanding what a non-Enlightenment structure of thought might look like. My point is rather that the relative weakness of arguments for disciplinary coverage proceeds from the fact that such arguments presume the university to be primarily an ideological institution, when in fact this is not the case. I will go further, and say that my suggestion is a crucial means for preserving classical and medieval texts from the extinction that currently threatens them. I do not have space here to get into an argument about tenure, so I merely presume its transitions continue.? However, I think that the increasing proletarianization of the professorial suggests that tenure may not necessarily (I italicize, to remind readers that I only wish to consider a possibility) be the most effective defense of faculty interests in the future. Note that the notion of faculty-student ratio is an economic rationale that I believe can be sold to administrators with potentially
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|Publication:||New Literary History|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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