[iDC] Defending UC
blakestimson at gmail.com
Tue Oct 4 19:30:57 UTC 2011
Thanks again Brian. I should sign off after this but let me just summarize my understanding of where we are with the understanding that you will likely offer your summary perspective in response. On the one hand, you say that your
> argument is NOT one of simplistically opposing the academic institution to community activism, labor organizing or the work of public intellectuals
but then, on the other hand, you adopt an absolutist position that decries the "total corruption" of academic institutions and heralds "those extradisciplinary and extra-institutional positions that [you] occupy" which are resolutely
> anti-institutional because the institutions concerned have been self-referential, neutralizing and frankly corrupt.
Your motives are different from other anti-institutionalists like Jonathan Lebed, of course, or those that see DIY higher ed as a business opportunity of nearly unprecedented proportions, or those that want to defund higher ed institutions for the same reasons they want to defund government and redistribute wealth from the 99% to the 1% (as the current slogan has it) by other means, but I do not see how the absolutism of your anti-institutionalism accomplishes anything other than unwittingly supporting those causes.
This, of course, does not mean that higher ed institutions should not be held accountable or, god forbid, that community organizing like the UC protests or the Wall Street occupation and its offshoots would be understood as anything other than a heroic exercise of civic responsibility. Nor does it mean that DIY educational initiatives of the sort you and many others are involved with are anything other than valuable.
My point might be made clearer by thinking the DIY higher ed movement together with the DIY primary ed (or Charter School) movement. Parents can't be blamed for looking to entrepreneurial alternatives for failing public schools and, in many instances, we might rightfully blame "self-referential" and "self-interested" (as you put it) bureaucratization for those public system failures. A more expansive view, however, would look at growing class sizes, diminished curricula, failed policies like No Child Left Behind, deteriorating facilities, and other consequences of the defunding that has been part of the larger redistribution of wealth and opportunity from poor to rich. Further, we might consider the two-step relation between the consequences of this defunding and the aims of those who would privatize public education as a whole. Higher ed faces many related challenges and your focus on bureaucratization misses the larger point in the same manner as those who lay the blame for failing public schools on the "total corruption" of school boards, principals, and teachers.
In sum, my concern is that, despite your assertions otherwise, your use of the concept of "total corruption" is anti-dialectical (for whatever this technical characterization is worth), that, despite your homage, you are not honoring Bourdieu's maxim not to "forget that institutions of cultural freedom are social conquests, no less so than Social Security or the minimum wage." My aim is simply to be mindful of that conquest as we explore what DIY education has to offer---not to protect universities and professors from critique and innovation anymore than we would protect government and politicians from critique and innovation, of course, but in order to avoid being an unwitting accessory to the great crime of our era by overgeneralizing that critique and championing the slogan "Universities are the problem not the solution."
Looking forward to future conversations,
On Oct 2, 2011, at 1:54 PM, Brian Holmes wrote:
> On 10/02/2011 02:26 AM, Blake Stimson wrote:
>> I think where we disagree is on what is needed now--you say
>> "communities" and I say "institutions." By the latter I mean what
>> Pierre Bourdieu had in mind when he said "We must never forget that
>> institutions of cultural freedom are social conquests, no less so
>> than Social Security or the minimum wage." I would even go so far as
>> to agree with him when he said that in order to effectively pursue
>> the democratic aims you outline, we "must first come to grips with
>> the fact that, to carry this project forward, there must be chairs of
>> philosophy or departments of sociology (which implies specific forms
>> of alienation), that philosophy or social science as official
>> disciplines, sanctioned by the state, have to have been invented,
> Now this is interesting stuff! As you surely know, Bourdieu's ideas largely underlay the biggest strike in France since 1968, in which the sociologist himself played a very active role. This was the so-called "metropolitan strike," where millions of unaffiliated citizens joined transportation and other public sector workers for over a month in the winter of 1995, particularly to defend universal public healthcare which is what they mean by "Social Security." They defended by taking institutional power to the street. I lived in France at that time, participated in that strike, and had many chances over two decades to understand how strong social-democratic/egalitarian forces can create and exercise socially progressive powers from within institutional positions which are not closed upon themselves. Therefore I understand very well what you are talking about when you quote Bourdieu. And so I repeat, my argument is NOT one of simplistically opposing the academic institution to community activism, labor organizing or the work of public intellectuals. (And by the way, I am puzzled why you want to lump all that together with the market: it's generally managers and business theorists who conflate these different categories into a blanket notion of "social entrepreneurialism").
> My argument is that social-democratic/egalitarian institutions in the United States have been seriously and often almost mortally weakened by their closure around themselves, through the increasingly self-referential nature of their specializations and above all, through their increasing focus of their highest ranked individuals on their own exclusive interests (whether as sectoral groups or as private persons). The latter process has not only exposed those specific professional groups to damaging corruption, which I define quite simply the neglect of the public interest in favor of private profit. It has also allowed the broader neoliberalization of public institutions to proceed practically unchecked, resulting in the conditions denounced by the occupations movement in the UC system two years ago, and much more widely, by the occupations movement now targeting the financial nerve-centers of neoliberal capitalism. Therefore I argue that to overcome the increasing tendency of academics to become an interest group among others, there has to be an effort to step outside the boundaries of the disciplines, to cease the market-oriented emphasis on "excellence," and to address the fast-degrading conditions of the university, the public sphere in general, and society as a whole. And I mean, to address it politically, and not just descriptively or theoretically (because most of that essential work has already been done). For this I now propose a strategy of cooperation, cross fertilization and also positively dialectical rivalry between those working in universities and others occupying various positions within a post-industrial society of mass intellectuality which is now subject to rapid proletarianization, where the greatest number are threatened by hypercompetitive predatory strategies which professionals of all kinds, including professors, are called upon to embody, to exercise and even to exemplify. These predatory strategies are the very ones that we see at work within the neoliberalized university -- or rather, that I see, because you seem to be in some denial on that point.
>> Bourdieu's words sound startlingly old-fashioned to our neoliberal
>> ears, for sure, but this is only to say that we are products of our
>> time no less than those of any other period. Our era is defined first
>> and foremost by the dissolution of democratic institutions--social
>> security, minimum wage, universities, etc--and the redistribution of
>> the commonwealth that once supported them into the pockets of the
>> Kochs and their friends. This has been accomplished by appropriating
>> the anti-institutionalism of the 1960s New Left.
> How could I not agree? Because since 1995 I have been knocking myself out to illuminate exactly those things, through diverse media and in discursive styles that many different kinds of people can understand and act on. My 2001 essay "The Flexible Personality," which describes in detail what you're talking about, was explicitly designed to cross-connect French, American and German intellectual traditions, to appeal to several different generations of critical and dissenting intellectuals whether academics or not, to produce actionable knowledge for political activism and to smuggle that knowledge past the disciplinary gatekeepers and into the academic institutions where it could combat the facile New Leftism of tenured radicals. I am glad to say that the gambit was a success, the text has been read by many thousands if not tens of thousands of people and translated into some ten different languages. In between times I also collaborated on Documenta X which helped make critical political analysis and activism part of the Euro-American institutions of art once again. Plus I helped translate every vanguard concept I worked on into some kind of socially active practice and campaign. In many cases these campaigns have been anti-institutional because the institutions concerned have been self-referential, neutralizing and frankly corrupt: check out my arch-Bourdieusian text "Liar's Poker" if you want an example. Now, I'm sorry for the immodesty but I say these things, first just to clarify where I'm coming from, and second, to suggest more generally that there are ways to defend social democratic and egalitarian institutions which do not involve defending one's own self-interests, and that you can do that from outside the academy without being some kind of "entrepreneur" or useful fool of the Koch brothers.
> You probably know that in the wake of 1995, and increasingly toward the end of his life, Bourdieu supported many European social movements including the counter-globalization movements. He also did a number of public appearances and interviews with anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, whose traditions, he claimed, deserved further attention and elaboration in the present. Why such a claim from the inveterate defender of public institutions? Because he was keenly aware of the complacency, corruption and political ineffectiveness of the broad majority of those institutional positions which he had struggled throughout his life to build into something more potent and useful. Bourdieu explicitly theorized a conception of intellectual capital which at once proposed the necessity of accumulating it within the precincts of internally governed professional/disciplinary fields, AND the necessity of "spending it," that is, of exchanging it for social, cultural, political and/or symbolic capital, so that the accumulated institutional power could have effects in the fields of labor and community organizing, of art and cultural activity, of formal politics and in the broad symbolic field of public perception and belief.
> Here's what I think. Academics who have no intellectual capital had better build it right now through ethical-political struggles within their own hypercompetitive, corrupt, and radically inegalitarian fields. Which means changing the ways they work so that the products are not self-referential, self-interested and therefore aligned with predatory neoliberal management strategies. Those who have built it up already through such struggles had better spend it right now, critiquing and opposing the sudden and violent power grab that money capital has been carrying out since 2008 on the entire public sphere and on the majority of humanity, or "bare life" as Agamben says. I have been told that Cornell West is camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York City. Until I see great numbers of purportedly leftist academics following suit, either in that movement or in other, better, more potent ones, I shall go on trying to help you by producing concepts and agitational forms, and (in all friendliness) by goading you from those extradisciplinary and extra-institutional positions that I occupy and which are dialectically related to the public institutions, as civil society is dialectically related to the state. One of the concepts I'll continue to use is that of the "total corruption" which in my considered analysis is threatening the public university and all public institutions.
> It's a pleasure to have a good debate, so thank you, Blake. Respect to all those who resist and create!
>> From: Blake Stimson <blakestimson at gmail.com>
>> Subject: Re: [iDC] Defending UC
>> Date: October 2, 2011 12:26:17 AM PDT
>> To: bhcontinentaldrift at gmail.com
>> Cc: idc at mailman.thing.net
>> Thanks again Brian for your thoughtful and productive challenges and your gracious highlighting of our common ground. We agree about the democratic aims you outline and the corruption of the democratic political process that the Koch brothers represent. I assume a wide swath of the political spectrum would also agree even if many don't know to call such freedom from corruption social democracy or communism and don't realize they are inadvertently supporting its demise.
>> I think where we disagree is on what is needed now--you say "communities" and I say "institutions." By the latter I mean what Pierre Bourdieu had in mind when he said "We must never forget that institutions of cultural freedom are social conquests, no less so than Social Security or the minimum wage." I would even go so far as to agree with him when he said that in order to effectively pursue the democratic aims you outline, we "must first come to grips with the fact that, to carry this project forward, there must be chairs of philosophy or departments of sociology (which implies specific forms of alienation), that philosophy or social science as official disciplines, sanctioned by the state, have to have been invented, etc."
>> Bourdieu's words sound startlingly old-fashioned to our neoliberal ears, for sure, but this is only to say that we are products of our time no less than those of any other period. Our era is defined first and foremost by the dissolution of democratic institutions--social security, minimum wage, universities, etc--and the redistribution of the commonwealth that once supported them into the pockets of the Kochs and their friends. This has been accomplished by appropriating the anti-institutionalism of the 1960s New Left. The founding slogans of that anti-institutionalism that carries on today with the lavish financial support of the Kochs and others are still "There's no such thing as society" and "Government is the problem not the solution."
>> Your critique of higher ed is absolutely on target but I think you put it too strongly when you say that it has been fully "eviscerated." It has suffered from the privatization wrought by the redistribution of wealth but just like the communities you refer to (perhaps we could use this list as an example of one such community?), higher ed institutions are not monolithic and homogenous entities but instead fields of debate, negotiation, and battle. Your advocacy for critical communities seems absolutely right to me as well but I would say that the communal creativity you refer to--I would call it social entrepreneurialism--is only the means, not the end. The means is important, of course, but the goal is Bourdieu's "institutions as social conquests"--minimum wage, say, or free speech laws that acknowledge the ways that money makes speech unfree, or educational institutions that not only train students to be instrumentalized DIY consumers of knowledge in the same way they build playlists but also to be independent critical thinkers actively in dialogue with a long history of accumulated and actively contested human understanding.
>> Communities are often institutions-in-the-making, of course, but until the social conquest of durable institutional form has been achieved they are just as prone--maybe even more likely--to end up as somebody else's cultural capital. As such, I worry that abandoning institutionalized higher ed as an existing social conquest (by treating it merely as an empty "shell") in favor of new, still unformed "platforms"--particularly when I think we both agree that the name of that platform in the end is most likely to be some variant of "iTunes U."
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