Monthly Archives: December 2009

Against Enclosure of the Academic Commons

Yesterday I participated in a panel at the annual Modern Language Association conference in Philadelphia.  The panel, organized by the Graduate Student Caucus, was entitled “Academic Business” and focused on the creeping corporatization of academia in recent decades.  On the panel along with me were Jean Howard, professor of English at Columbia University, John Guillory of NYU, and Colleen Lye of the University of California-Berkeley (who read a paper sent in by Chris Newfield of UC-Santa Barbara).  In this, my first attempt at almost-live blogging, I record participants’ comments.

Jean Howard kicked the session off by offering a broad definition of “corporatization” as the state in which bottom-line economic decisions increasingly determine all aspects of academic life.  She warned, however, that the university is not a seamless entity, and that different branches are differentially impacted by corporatization.  She also argued that the university in the U.S. has never not been linked to business.  Having said that, though, she did acknowledge that significant changes have taken place over the last three decades.  Speaking from her experience at Columbia, she described how the university’s administrators have taken over more and more institutional governance from the faculty.  At CU, for example, the Provost, who is elected by the faculty, no longer controls the budget.  Howard also described moves to make faculty more expendable as a crucial element of corporatization, as well as an embrace of the model of students as consumers.  Finally, Howard described the saturation of the university by assessment and accountability exercises.

These shifts, Howard noted, are not all entirely negative.  Governance is increasingly transparent, which means more work for faculty but also means that old-boy networks have less purchase on faculty life than in previous times.  Nonetheless, money-making schemes are increasingly central to university life, Howard acknowledged, and professional schools such as Business, Law, and Health Sciences are increasingly autonomous from the university itself, which means a significant siphoning of funds off from the humanities.  Solid points, all of these, but not particularly new for anyone familiar with work such as Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education or Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades’ Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education.

John Guillory’s presentation similarly focused on defining the corporatization of academia, but offered more speculative comments in addition.  Guillory began by talking about growth for growth’s sake, and accumulation of endowment funds simply for the sake of accumulation, and the enhancement of the university’s reputation through star hires as some of the determining traits of academic corporatization.  Guillory went on to talk about how decisions made by administrators are driven by their perceptions of the value of the work done and degrees offered by the university.  This led him to pose a question central to his presentation: what is the basis for funding graduate programs?  Aside from the academic labor performed by graduate employees, prestige and notions of the social good justify Ph.D. programs, Guillory argued.  If these latter, more intangible factors are the determining ones behind Ph.D. programs, Guillory suggested, graduate programs funded by extracting casual labor are not legitimate.  Guillory also mentioned the recent Mellon report on graduate education, which, he suggested, underlined the need for graduate programs to move to fully funded programs or shut down.

After Guillory concluded, Colleen Lye read Chris Newfield’s paper.  Newfield began by arguing that what he called the “American Funding Model” for higher education is rife with contradictions: high tuition at public universities creates the feeling of an unsustainable education bubble, leading to public ire against funding of higher ed.  Newfield argued that only recourse is to fix the funding model through full public funding of universities.  To bring this about, the humanities need to raise their voice about the global role of the university.  Newfield cited the important role of the global justice movement in defending public infrastructure, and suggested that the humanities should join the chorus in protecting the academic commons.  The goal, Newfield argued, should be to democratize the university and to insure its openness.  In order to bring this about, the humanities need to cultivate stronger links to the human rights and justice discourses of the global justice movement.  There is a strong majoritarian revolt taking place around the planet against neoliberalism, Newfield reminded us, and the U.S. academy needs to join it more decisively.

Newfield also argued that the humanities need to stress their role in bringing about social innovation.  The perception that innovation is purely a technological matter is completely incorrect, Newfield stated.  Finally, Newfield suggested that progressive academics need to challenge the corollary perception that the humanities are a drain on university budgets largely supported by research in the sciences and engineering.  Rehearsing some of the trenchant arguments he lays out at greater length in Unmaking the Public University, Newfield argued that humanities teaching actually supports research-intensive fields economically rather than vice versa.  Budgeting and cross-subsidies are now a major political issue, and academics need to challenge corporatizing managers’ claims that the humanities are a drag on collective resources.  Newfield wrapped up by suggesting that this movement for economic transparency within the university needs to work with the global justice movement-affiliated stream in order to transform the university.

My own comments, archived in the Talks section of this website, discussed the history of my own institution – City University of New York – as particularly symptomatic of attacks on the vision of an egalitarian and open university system in the U.S.  I looked in particular detail at the way in which the fiscal crisis of NYC during the 1970s was used to dismantle CUNY’s free tuition, open admissions model, which was perceived by urban and national elites as threatening to create a college-educated and hence dangerous proletariat.  After tracing this history, I suggested that we can take three steps to help realize the emanicipatory vision that CUNY once (and to a certain extent still) incarnated: devote our academic labor to ideological work on education as a human right; organize, particularly through progressive, democratic academic unions that struggle not simply for bread-and-butter issues but also for a broader vision of the university as a site for fostering broader forms of social justice; catalyze autonomous initiatives that pressure academic managers and state legislatures through direct action.

The question and answer session that followed was lively, bringing up issues such as how to protect the autonomy of the university while also making it more transparent and socially engaged, how to get students and professor more engaged in movements in defense of the public university, and how to articulate notions of the social good to the university more effectively after the culture wars and the War on Terror.

After the Q&A, I spoke with some UCa grad students who told me about the launch of a new online journal called Reclamations devoted to democratizing the university.  Other websites worth watching in this regard include Chris Newfield’s blog, Remaking the University, and, for news of developments in the very active European student movement, the Italian site Uniriot.

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Avatars of Apartheid

At first blush, James Cameron’s Avatar appears to be a Dances with Wolves for the digital age.  True, the digital effects are breathtaking, taking the encounter with otherness to a new level.  Avatar conjures up an incredibly lush imaginary world, rendered particularly engrossing by the film’s use of unobtrusive new 3D technology.  This use of powerful digital technology is rather ironic given the film’s dystopian take on the human use of technology.  The whole point of this immersive technology, however, is to transport viewers into an alternative reality in which the present can be imagined otherwise.

What is this alternative reality?  As in Dances with Wolves, the film’s critique of U.S. imperialism is stinging.  In Dances With Wolves, the Union cause during the Civil War is dealt with in an offhanded fashion, and the film quickly shifts its interest to the reborn nation’s frontier politics.  Here madness, in the form of the delusional alcoholic Major Fambrough, and grasping dishonesty reign.  In Avatar, this critique is updated for the era of the War on Terror: the unscrupulous corporation that is mining the world of Pandora employs an army of mercenaries who deploy “shock and awe” in order to subdue the native Na’Vi.  Tellingly, the pitbull-like leader of this corps, Colonel Miles Quaritch, eventually pushes the civilians out of the way as “preemptive strikes” are launched in order to dislodge the Na’Vi from their territory.  This nicely captures the U.S.’s slide towards a privatized neo-fascist militarism during the War on Terror.

In order for this critique to stick, of course, the protagonist (and, by extension, the audience) must become disillusioned with Empire.  How does Avatar engineer such disillusionment?  Again resembling Kevin Costner’s film of 1990, Avatar plays out the seduction of going native.  In Dances With Wolves, the protagonist John Dunbar is first physically isolated from imperial culture and then immersed in the indigenous culture of the Lakota.  Dunbar finds his way into the culture with the help of a responsive woman, played by an assimilated white woman named Stands With a Fist.  Once he goes native, Dunbar becomes a leader of the tribe and attempts to save them from the depredations of Empire.  This scenario is replayed in Avatar, with the crippled ex-Marine Jake Sully initiated into the culture of the Na’Vi in his avatar form, won over to their cause through his awe at their symbiotic relationship with Pandora’s natural world and through his attraction to the Pocahantas-like Neytiri.

The problem is that this myth of going native is itself an imperial fantasy.  Although Neytiri initially tells Sully that he’s like a child and subjects him to a long period of apprenticeship, he not only ultimately learns the ropes and becomes a member of her Na’Vi tribe, but, after the nefarious Colonel Quaritch destroys the tribe’s home, goes on to lead resistance efforts to the Empire.  So the white male self ultimately remains in control.  Where is the anti-imperialism in this?

Although Avatar appears to engage most directly with the U.S.’s particular genocidal history, the racialized imperial fantasy enacted in the film also shares DNA with anti-apartheid films set in South Africa during the late 1980s such as Dry White Season.  In these films, a clueless white protagonist suddenly has the scales drop from his eyes after a chance encounter leads him to see the venality of the apartheid system.  Typically, a gardener’s son is “disappeared” during protests in the townships; the protagonist, moved by his personal ties to his servants, becomes involved, believing that justice will quickly be done and things set aright.  Of course his efforts not only fail to produce justice, but in addition show him the venality of the apartheid system’s treatment of non-whites.  In the course of his odyssey, the protagonist is increasingly alienated from the complacent white people with whom he has heretofore lived; these people in turn ostracize him, closing ranks against a perceived race traitor.  The protagonist’s abjection is redeemed, however, by his newfound status as hero of the anti-apartheid movement.

Such anti-apartheid films go beyond a guilt syndrome in which fiction enacts a white desire to be absolved of racial injustice.  In these films, the black-led anti-apartheid movement becomes a vehicle for white aspirations, upending the dynamic on the ground and imposing white needs and subjectivity onto an otherwise alien landscape.  This apartheid-era narrative was slyly remade recently in District 9, which stages the mutation of an Afrikaner into an alien who, like Avatar‘s Jake Sully, goes native and resists Empire.  Given the history of South Africa after apartheid, with the ANC cleaving faithfully to the neo-liberal precepts of the international financial community, this colonization of the anti-apartheid struggle his ominous historical implications.

The remarkable resemblance between District 9 and Avatar suggests more than simply the striking trans-continental continuity of the white imperial imaginary; this similarity also underlines the enduring need to decolonize the anti-imperial imaginary.  Apartheid, it seems, has many avatars.

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Pedagogy of the Oppressors

This is the first of an occasional series of posts on the search for a high school for my daughter in the New York City area.  Unfortunately I haven’t chronicled this entire experience, but I will be including selected vignettes of adventures we’ve had over the last four months or so of the school search in order to capture reflections on this harrowing experience.

I want to document this because it has been by far the most intense and unpleasant ordeal I’ve undergone while living in New York City – which is not exactly an easy place to live at the best of times.  In fact, according to a recent survey, NYC ranks last among the many states in the U.S. in terms of happiness.  But then perhaps happiness is overrated.  There are certainly a lot of bizarre and sometimes quite amusing elements mixed into the NYC school search ordeal.  Moreover, although I’m sure that this experience is highly anomalous, as a limit case I suspect it has quite a lot to reveal about the extreme circumstances to which youths are increasingly subjected in the precarious world we currently inhabit.

At any rate, last night we attended a reception for a NJ-based boarding school at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel here in NYC.  We’re looking at boarding schools as well as private and public schools in NYC.  Since public high schools in the city are now so selective, I want to make sure that my daughter gets accepted somewhere and so I’m applying almost everywhere (at least that’s how it often feels).  Apparently boarding schools have a lot more financial aid to give, and so we’ve been encouraged to apply there as well as to so-called day schools in the city.

There also seems to be a trend towards boarding schools among young people in the city.  My daughter, like most of her friends, expressed interest in going away to one, the idea being that as an only child she pines for the company of an extended network of siblings, something she’s likely to find at a boarding school, in theory at least.  I think it’s also part of the desire to grow up more quickly, to have the teen equivalent of a kind of glamorous Carrie Bradshaw cosmopolitan life.

The reception at the Waldorf Astoria certainly seemed to promise an experience along those lines.  The hotel itself was straight out of an Edith Wharton novel.  Most of the people there seemed like movie stars or prostitutes or both.  I half expected to see Bono and Jeffrey Sachs smoozing with Angelina Jolie in an alcove of the lobby.  I held onto my daughter’s arm very tightly.

The young people and parents who turned up for the reception also all seemed very urbane, and I was struck by the very high percentage of African-American families in attendance.  The reception was held in “Peacock Alley,” which felt just about gilded enough.  Rather ironic given the parlous state of the U.S. economy today.

Once school officials began making presentations, though, the hollowness of private school rhetoric began to show through this gilded facade.  The head of the school talked a lot about “tangible signs of progress” at the school, by which he seemed to mean that they have a lot of money and have been throwing up a lot of buildings.  As he ceded his place to a string of other school officials and teachers, I was struck by the fact that all the people tapped to speak were Anglo-American, a very unfortunately choice given the predominantly non-white composition of the potential applicant pool.  Why would any of us want to entrust our children to people who seemed not to have thought about the need to integrate their institution and their public face?

The various administrators and teachers who spoke talked about how the school embodied strong values and community.  As my daughter pointed out in a frustrated aside after the reception, this was ridiculous.  All schools have values and community.  What kind of values and community is, of course, the question.

After the administrators held forth, a series of students were invited to speak.  One young couple perhaps gave an unwitting clue to the school’s values.  They mentioned that they went from the school to an elite ivy league university, from whence they went on to work at Lehman Brothers, and now, after being fired when the firm collapsed, work at Goldman Sachs.  The point, I suppose, was to underline the illustrious career trajectory of graduates from the school.  It didn’t seem to have dawned on anyone that these blithe young spirits had come to rest in two of the most piratical institutions in the U.S.  So much for instilling values!

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The continuity of imperial discourse

President Obama recently gave two speeches that should be seen as signposts of contemporary U.S. empire.  Their continuity with American exceptionalist rhetoric of the past is striking, underlining the extent to which Obama is trapped within the paradigms of the past.

The first of these speeches was Obama’s Nobel laureate acceptance address.  This address was notable for invoking Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ringing condemnation of violence during the era of the Vietnam War: Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”  President Obama then went on to twist this argument around by invoking the concept of just war.  As he summarized it, just war doctrine insures that state violence is only legitimate when it meets three conditions: “if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

The problem with Obama’s argument is that just war doctrine cannot support the imperial occupation of Afghanistan that he is currently bent on intensifying.  The war in Afghanistan can hardly be said to be in self-defense when the Taliban pose no direct threat to the U.S. and when al-Qaeda has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.  The force being deployed in Afghanistan is anything but proportional since the U.S. is the world’s only military super-power and Afghanistan is one of the poorest and weakest countries on the planet.  Finally, civilians have NOT been spared the violence of the war.  Stephen Walt recently argued that the United States has killed 12,000-32,000 civilians in Afghanistan since the war’s outbreak.  Many of these civilian deaths were caused by drones operated by private contractors.

It seems that there’s an emerging pattern in Obama’s rhetoric.  In the Nobel speech, he replayed the tropes he deployed in his celebrated Cairo address: gesture towards universal peace and understanding using lofty rhetoric, then go on to lay out plans for expanding war-making.  As Farrah Hassen points out in The Cairo Detour, U.S. policies in these countries, with their high toll of civilian deaths, have increased the risks of blowback against the U.S. rather than winning over Muslim hearts and minds.

We see a similar set of imperial contradictions in Obama’s recent speech at the Copenhagen climate summit.  After swooping in to the summit at the 11th hour, Obama delivered a talk that began by acknowledging the gravity of the global climate crisis and went on to exhort the nations of the world to make radical changes in order to save the planet.  After this uplifting beginning, however, Obama unleashed a thinly veiled attack on China, laying bare the increasing inter-imperial conflict over the right to pollute the atmospheric commons that was woven through the last two weeks of climate brinksmanship.  While calling for decisive action, Obama announced no new commitments for reducing emissions beyond the risible 4% goal announced at the onset of the conference, no significant new financing for climate adaptation and clean technology among poor countries, and no intentions to press Congress to pass climate legislation.

The U.S. under Obama thus seems to be operating firmly in the unilateralist groove carved out by the Bush administration.  He may be an exceptional man, but he’s working firmly within an exceptionalist tradition.

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