Saturday, December 22, 2007


Disputation of Academia

1. It is rather odd that Michel Foucault, the great unmasker of modernity’s apparatuses of power, was relatively silent about the one institution that he was a full member of - the academy. From the hight of his chair at the College de France, the Professor of the History of Systems of Thought talked again and again about the madhouse and the hospital, the prison and the state, the barrack and the boarding school, but very little about the space in which his body and soul dwelled - the modern university.

2. The university is to the church what the madhouse is to the lepers’ house. The indisputable place of the church in the mediaeval land is morphing in front of our eyes into this seemingly harmless place the university occupies in the modern world.

3. The average middle-ager did not expect to celebrate his 30th birthday. If you add the days he spent in church throughout his life, you arrive to about three or four years, which happens to be the time most people spend in college.

4. The function of the professor is to profess the doctrine, hence the title “doctor.” The professor is a priest.

5. If the modest, disheveled, liberal professor of today does not manifest the aura of a spiritual guide, consider how, in 1892, during a visit to Berlin, Mark Twain stared in amazement as a crowd of a thousand young students "rose and shouted and stamped and clapped, and banged the beer-mugs" when the historian Theodor Mommsen entered the room: “This was one of those immense surprises that can happen only a few times in one's life... Here he was, clothed in a titanic deceptive modesty which made him look like other men. Here he was, carrying the Roman world and all the Caesars in his hospitable skull, and doing it as easily as that other luminous vault, the skull of the universe, carries the Milky Way and the constellations.”

6. The modern universities originated in Paris and Bologna as an outgrowth of ecclesiastical institutions, and their teachers asserted their authority by sitting, like bishops, in thrones. This is the reason why we still speak about professorships as “chairs.” William Clark explains in Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University: “The lecture, like the sermon, had a liturgical cast and aura. One must be authorized to perform the rite, and must do it in an authorized manner. Only then does the chair convey genuine charisma to the lecturer."

7. In the church, the purpose of liturgy is glory. In the university, the liturgy may be disguised, but the effect, the glory, is the same. There is simply no other way to explain the subtle rules of the academic conference or the baroque processions of the commencement ceremony.

8. Every first-year philosophy student heard the story about how Descartes had to convince the professors of the Sorbonne that his book adheres to the Christian dogma. Most people remember this as a story about the fight between reason and the church. But could this also be simply a story about the struggle between reason and academy? This is the zone of indistinction between priests and professors, church and university, philosophy and heresy.

9. At the end of his retched life, Walter Benjamin - who was first shunned by members in the German academy, then by members in the American academy, and then even by members in the pre-Israeli academy - wrote about a hidden hunchback who manipulated a puppet with Turkish clothes to look as if it can play a winning game of chess. He was indeed right to call the hunchback “theology,” but he mistakenly identified the puppet as “historical materialism.” If he only observed his own situation, he would realize that the name of this puppet could very well be something that we can call “academic materialism.”

10. Think about the truly greatest thinkers of modernity. How many of them were university professors? Most of them worked on the side of mainstream academic research. Those who held professorships, either left their posts in order to write their greatest works, or wrote those works before they were appointed to their prestigious posts. If the people that you deem as great thinkers were indeed mainstream university professors, then ask yourself whether they develop a system, or whether they left behind them a school. If you can still think of more than one or two great modern thinkers who happened to also be professors, then you better stop reading this. There are surely too many papers in distinguished journals and presentations in important conferences that you should first attend to.

11. For example, when all is said and done, people will come to realize that today’s greatest thinker is a man who never studied in graduate school; a man who deems his short formal studies as worthless; a man who began teaching at a university in his mid-forties; and to this day, twenty years later, is still awaiting a tenure. This man is Giorgio Agamben. It is not a surprise that so many distinguished academicians are so critical about Agamben’s work, while the young generation continues to read his books with great enthusiasm. But no matter. In fifty years no one will remember that those assistant, associate, and full professors ever existed, while Agamben’s books will continue to be read.

12. One of the most ludicrous myths about the university is that the campus is a hotbed for revolt. You simply need to go into any campus around the world and look into the eyes of the students, and you will see nothing but passivity and dispassion. Then you will perhaps think about other times, better times, probably in the sixties, when the student unrest shook the foundations of cities and states around the globe. But what was it exactly that those students opposed? First and foremost, it was the university system itself!

13. In one of the notes for her book On Violence, Hannah Arendt grasps with great tenacity the secret way by which the Church is linked to the university, which she calls "the only secular institution still based on authority." Thinking about the Berkeley riots, she writes: "The university today calls upon the police for protection exactly as the Catholic church used to do before the separation of state and church forced it to rely on authority alone. It is perhaps more than an oddity that the severest crisis of the church as an institution should coincide with the severest crisis in the history of the university." Nonetheless, it is quite clear, forty years later, that Arendt overstated the matter. The 1960's crisis dissipated and the university is today stronger than ever. This probably has to do less with its authoritarian rationality, and more with what we call instrumental rationality.

14. The college is not meant to perpetuate the revolutionary desires of the young generation but to block them, or to channel those desires into so-called “productive” or intentionally futile avenues. Even if deviation is allowed, it is circumscribed to certain times and places, or exceptions, that never interfere with the rule. The graduate school is meant to produce “scholars” who are in fact the officers who will control this process by which passion is put into an idle program.

15. The teaching and the writing of a professor is not supposed to agitate. “Academic freedom” is nothing but the sleeping pill of comfortable living. Professors are rarely creative thinkers but mostly monotonous producers - they get paid to produce a certain amount of classes and publications every year. What good can come of that?

16. Today, revolt is possible anywhere but in the academy.

17. "There is no oxygen in Cambridge for you," Wittgenstein told one of his pupils, as he tried to convince him to leave this god forsaken place. When the pupil wondered why did the great philosopher still cling to his academic position, Wittgenstein replied: "It does not matter for me. I manufacture my own oxygen."


Anonymous said...

welcome back

ana_chronic said...

I'm not sure if Foucault was just blind to his privileged position in the academy-machine (and radical theorists can be!). Maybe he was just being strategic? In an interview with Contretemps, John Dalton asked this of Wendy Brown, as part of a longer question:

"Why is there a ‘Birth of the Clinic’ and not a ‘Birth of the Department’?"

Within her reply Brown noted:

"The history of the university has never been one of radical freedom or egalitarianism,
non-exploitation, non-hierarchy, or anything like that. Au contraire. Remembering this might
allow us to seize the possibilities we do have, as teachers who still can say pretty much what
we want in the classroom, teach pretty much the texts that we think ought to be taught,
write pretty much the books that we think ought to be written. It’s worth remembering this
at the same time as we do critical political work on the deadening, politically exploitative,
and increasingly managerial characteristics of the university."

It's a similar debate I think! See:

ana_chronic said...

PS. I just *love* the term ' discipline and publish. A very true description of what it is like to be in the university system at the moment (in my case, as a doctoral candidate at a poshly conservative Australian institution).

dionysusstoned said...


Christopher said...

Very interesting and very true I think. It applies across the academy as well.

But where do we go? While the waters of the academy might be stagnate, the torrents of the internet (the pseudo-saviour of thought and ideas) are more often than not shallow and defiled.

I especially agree with this:
One of the most ludicrous myths about the university is that the campus is a hotbed for revolt. You simply need to go into any campus around the world and look into the eyes of the students, and you will see nothing but passivity and dispassion.
Ludicrous indeed.

Anonymous said...

apparently foucault was pretty actively engaged in the university. halperin writes about it in his semi-biographical book "saint foucault."

the reference he cites: DIdier Eribon's book Michel Foucault et ses contemporains p 185-209


Anonymous said...

"college is not meant to perpetuate the revolutionary desires of the young generation but to block them, or to channel those desires into so-called “productive” or intentionally futile avenues."

Are you kidding me? WHAT revolutionary desires? I see nothing but the desire for productive conformity, and that's not for lack of looking...

Sophia Yves Nalichin said...

I thought i may points out some of the recent ruptures within the current academic halls of the US. Here in the states there has been an upsurge of specifically "radical"* students. Whom have begun to occupy the administration buildings and even begun to take a lot of other space back within the university. Debatabely taking this space and allocating the reason for the activities at the level of better tuition will not spread into everyday life (unless a certain analysis is taken up) yet they have begun to take the theory they read and practice it. This may also have a lot to do with the agitation from anarchist/anti-authoritarians/anti-statist communists. Regardless there are revolts that may rupture from the halls of academia. Though i feel they will fall back into a recuperation of student/teacher reform and the lessing of tuition or meeting a compromise with the administration.
Look at the news within the West Coast. Berkley, San Francisco, Fresno, Modesto.. California.

*I specifically use the term radical to denote its use within more left circles that has become a word that lost its original meaning or more so is intended meaning is not pointing towards an overall specifity for certain contingents of the anti-political subjects that separate themselves from the left that the media also tries to define as the "ultra-left".