[iDC] Re: Doing away with universities?

brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr
Sun Feb 12 16:12:49 EST 2006

Trebor may be surprised, but I'm totally with him on this one. I think
that, like it or not, societies are basically structured by their
institutions. In a knowledge society, the position of the university is

Benefitting from a great tradition of autonomy and respect for the
open-endedness of knowledge, universities in the different western
countries (the ones I know, anyway) developed into pockets of
institutionalized experimentation during the period of the welfare state
(30s to 70s). A complex texture of knowledge production and also aesthetic
production in the public universities was one of the great results of the
welfare-state idea that not everything is the market - that society has to
create space and time for activities which are not indexed on the market.

Since the 1970s, that kind of university has been under seige. I have
written about the seige mechanisms it in an article called "Three Proposals
for a Real Democracy," which is available in various places on the web. I
am certain that there has been real decay in the public character of the
university. I also think that part of that public character has effectively
migrated onto the Internet (and in that respect, I wouldn't just brush off
what John Hopkins is saying - not that Trebor was exactly brushing it off
either). I personally was shocked and dismayed by the commodification of
American academia while I was there in the 80s. But still, despite all
that, it's clearly something to appreciate and to stand for in contemporary

There was discussion here about open databanks. These would be so useful!
In a knowledge society, the commodification of knowledge means the
reduction of every kind of spiritual pursuit to simple competition (because
that's what markets are always about in the end: competition). It all
becomes a capital investment in yourself: is that article or video or sound
poem or whatever worth the $25 I'm being asked to invest in it? Is there
some payoff in it for me? But that shouldn't be the point of the life of
the mind! Or of the senses either. It's essentially the end product of
public universities - research, in whatever field - that is getting sold
over such gateways as Ingenta or Muse which I personally always find
blocking my way when I want to learn something. One of the basic social
struggles is for ever-increasing access to the things that make you dream.

I personally think that some of the struggle for a non-capitalist valuation
of knowledge and of aesthetic activity has to go on outside the existing
institutions. There are a lot of different roles to play in this kind of
thing. I personally have kind of a bridge role between people trying to
survive in what are becoming minority positions in the university, and
other people trying to survive on the fringes of the market. My work for
the most part is unrelentingly critical, which I think pisses Trebor off
sometimes (I believe I have noticed that?) But the main goal, I would say,
is preserving and expanding the possibilities for open-ended
experimentation that is at least potentially of benefit to all. What's at
stake here is the capacity for imagining, feeling out and articulating what
life's good for. The university should be a place where very very many
answers to that question are possible.

best, Brian

In response to John¹s post:

Academia is an easy target. Sure, there are those ivory tower,
dead-wood-professors that you describe. The faculty meetings, -- I have
not been at a single one that had the character of what you describe.
Universities corporatize. That is all true. There are many far reaching
problems! Over the past year or two I encountered many who truly disdain
universities flat out. Fair enough. Let's hear the arguments. But for
one, more often than not, the critical faculty that  people contribute
to the knowledge-factory-debate was acquired during university study in
the first place.  And secondly, how much moral high ground can we claim
if we are part of this educational system. I consider guest lectures,
workshops, conferences and their attached (if very modest) financial
gain as being part of academia. So often people voice this all-out
disregard for academia while being part of it and having benefited from
it intellectually. I find that very contradictory and bizarre.
Generalized, sweeping accounts help very little. What actually happens
in universities is quite variegated. There is much of the horrible
horribleness that John describes but there are also very many pockets of
difference. This system influences and shapes many thousands of people
every year. It's no peanuts. It has effects far beyond its firewalls.
Can we really doom the university to a slow death (as John suggests)? Do
students really turn their back to the university? I don't even see a
modest trend in that direction. The university is quite alive but not
well. What are alternatives? Is network culture strong enough to take
over? With regard to new-media art education universities are, at least
in the US, the main locus for such work. They have the often-expensive
hardware needed for advanced tech projects. They are a breeding ground
for friendships. They facilitate human encounters. There surely are
distributed efforts. And I am not talking of e-learning or long-distance
learning, which I'd only support in select, rare cases.  But outside
universities there are of course countless tech forums online, chat
rooms, art projects that frame themselves as self-organized
universities, online repositories and more that constitute learning
communities. But that does not replace the complex layers of education
and sharing that take place in a graduate university context. In Europe
there are a few places that do amazing work in that area (i.e. DeWaag,
V2) but that does not change the fact that most educational work still
takes place in universities. Some people spit fire when they talk about
academia. I like and appreciate many of them very much. But I still
wonder, and respectfully ask, if there is not a bit of personal
biography-driven reasoning behind such total rejection. Perhaps this
argumentation relates first of all to personal life style choices?

>>John wrote (in 1998):
>>"the revolution will  not be televised, it will simply be a praxis
>>embedded in the network that is community. the occupation is of the
>>network, is of each other's lives, is of being, is of body, it is of it
>>all." neoscenes is about the creation of personal spaces where-in the
>>individual realizes the potential of individual and collaborative
>>creativity. it is about seizing the opportunity presented by the
>>internet and contemporary tele-communications to create active spaces 
>>that are autonomous of the traditional 'institutions of higher
>>learning'. it is about sharing."

This is an impressive statement, especially given the year that it was
written. Bey's TAZ meets network culture. I definitely see the value and
power of collaborative, distributed research. This list (and many
others) in a way does just that. There are wide fields of possibility
indeed. Alternative or parallel economies of sharing have to be reckoned
with. The potential is in the exchange of information and of group
formation online. But does that replace the heated debate in the
university cafeteria or the seminar room? I believe that a skillful
enmeshed structure would work best. For me, this discussion is not
motivated by a death wish for the university. There are already islands
of autonomy within "institutions of higher learning." Rather than
pursuing an, perhaps, utopian extra-institutional position, I argue for
cross-pollination between online groups and brick and mortar
institutions. I am particularly interested in ways in which bootstrap
initiatives can influence and perhaps even subvert traditional,
corporate, educational institutions.


iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity
iDC at bbs.thing.net

List Archive:

mail2web - Check your email from the web at
http://mail2web.com/ .

More information about the iDC mailing list