On Wednesday, I attended the ‘Who is Afraid of Philosophy’ talk at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The talk was meant to be both a retrospective on the 12 days of occupation at Middlesex University, and a critical reflection regarding the rationale behind the administrative decision to shut the philosophy department (for a more journalistic and less opinionated take on the event than mine check out the New Statesman article here).
The discussion orbited around the themes of the bureaucratization of higher education and its reshaping by administrators/managers according to a model of businness where, essentially, monetary income has the priority over intellectual production. Philosophy, as the Middlesex events testify, ends up being the most penalized discipline in this referaming of the University’s function. Why? Peter Osborne proposed to reframe the guiding question of the event, replacing ‘fear’ with ‘a combination of loathing and anxiety/dread [angst]‘: the managers in charge of University administration find in philosophy a temporary target, a resting place for their anxieties since what is dreaded in philosophy is the intrinsic ‘unmeasurability of thinking in general’. These managers, Osborne remarked, are not old-fashioned anti-intellectuals but on the contrary they are the veritable intellectuals of educational accounting: in their capitalist worldview philosophy would therefore symbolize the ultimate embodiment of their angst, the impossibility of (ac-)counting, the emblem of the existence of ‘things intrinsically unquantifiable’ (and therefore impossible to commodify). To translate into the language of capitalism, philosophy has an intrinsic resilience to be assigned exchange value (hence the justification, from the Dean Middlesex’s faculty of Art and Humanities, of cutting philosophy because of the lack of a ‘measurable contribution’ to the University as a whole). In line with Osborne’s Marxist reading of the relation between philosophers (labourer) and administrators (capitalist owners), we could add that not only are philosophers unable to produce sizable products, but they also take a long time to do so. Indeed, in the opening piece of a new rubric of the New York Times dedicated to philosophy (an interesting sign in its own right), Simon Critchley’s remarked that ‘we might say that to philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at your back’. Since in a capitalst structure time is –quite literally–money, no wonder that the slacking philsopers are fired.
Ultimately then, philosophy and philosophers are both profoundly unheimlich in our society (in our predicament of Capitalist Realism to use Fisher’s phrasing), manifesting this impossibility of sizing-up, measuring and quantifying (and indeed even identifying) their products: something that cannot be measured does not exist. And if it does, it must be erased as a waste of relocatable resources, since the University must work according to what Alexander Garcia Duttmann named the ‘imperative of external funding’. [Ironically, Osborne quickly mentioned that this unquantifiable position is common to philosophy and to pure mathematics. Indeed, pure maths to say it with Badiou, is a pure presentation of presentation, and it is only when its methods are applied to the world (the physical world, the social world...) that it becomes a tool of quantification].
How to respond to this bleak picture? Ali Alizadeh shared with the audience the positive impressions he gathered from his involvement in the occupation, and from the national and international interest and support received by the occupants, describing them as signs of a ripeness of times for a new engagement of philosophy with the public: philosophy can reclaim its dignity not by striving to fill the huge gap between businness-minded administrators and academic labourers (teachers and researchers) but by strenghtening (and creating) links between ‘philosophers’ and the ‘public’. Alizadeh –crucially in my opinion– brought the issue down to a level of collective mobilization by stressing the importance for the movement of protest not to lose its momentum, and to organize, during the coming summer, a inter-University platform capable of offering a solid pole of antagonism when the inevitable further cuts to public education will be announced in September. This resonates with the main point offered by Duttmann who, paraphrasing Adorno, stated that we shouldn’t aim at ‘defending’ philosophy, for what is defended is already given up, but we should affirm it, in what I take to be both a rhetorical and a political sense.
When it comes to public engagement however, according to Nina Power, this necessary ‘popularization’ of philosophy can be re-employed by academic managers as a weapon against philosophy itself: downplaying the scientificity and objectivity of philosophy and placing it along a series of ‘social activities’ which can be liked or disliked, administrators can support their claim of a lack of measurable contributions. In their eyes, philosophy would therefore be an activity for the forum, not for the productive halls of a Taylorized academy — philosophy departments are therefore expendable.
Having thought about this, my reaction is: well why not? I unfortuately tend to agree with Alizadeh when he claims that ‘today academia is not a good place for thinking’, and I have recently made very explicit my Hadotian opinions when it comes to the frame of mind of academic philosophy. My question is: are we complaining about the right thing? Let me be provocative: once we consider the larger principle and not the specific case of Middlesex, to what extent is it really detrimental for philosophy to have its place in academia questioned? If it is indeed clear to us all how this questioning is engendered by the money-driven necessities of a capitalist society, doesn’t it also unwittingly produce the space for a philosophical event? Doesn’t it push philosophy to a place where a new larval shape can evolve without being prematurely suffocated by the academic machinery? Doesn’t this dismissal, as a byproduct, create the possibility for a thorough self-examination of philosophy, especially regarding its relationship with the public sphere? Before zeroing in to the answer that I believe can be given to these questions, let me quote some passages from Ian Bogost’s recent paper ‘We Think In Public‘ delivered at the Time Will Tell, but Epistemology Won’t, a conference in memory of Richard Rorty. In it, Bogost delightfully (and ruthlessly) dissects philosophers’ ambitions to be public intellectuals and claims that
The cynic might argue that, at best, writing leftist jive in The Atlantic amounts to a futures market hedge on intellectual commodities. Eventually one cashes in on a collection of pithy, outraged essays for University of Whatever Press, and a smooth, salty gravy to pour over a steamy promotion statement. Public intellectualism is only public when set in relief against the sordid, indulgent privatism of the liberal arts, which spends most of its collective time denigrating the general public for their false consciousness in the coffeeshop attached to the indie bookstore. Let’s face it: thinking in public is orthogonal to scholarly life. The “public intellectual” is a contradiction in terms.
and offers a most wonderful metaphor to describe the status of professional (academic) philosophers:
There’s a fictional character in The Simpsons known as Comic Book Guy. Offering sarcastic quips about his favorite comics and television shows, he epitomizes the nerd-pedant who splits every last hair in his pop cultural fare. Besides serving as a send-up of the quintessential comic book/Dungeons & Dragons geek, Comic Book Guy also lampoons the nitpickery of the Internet, where living in public also requires critiquing every detail of everything all the time.
But beyond those obvious references, I think Comic Book Guy also serves as a critique-by-proxy of most academics. We are insufferable pettifogs who listen or read first to find fault and only later to seek insight, if ever. “Discourse” is not a term for ironist conversation, but the brand name for a device used to manufacture petty snipes—about the etymology of a word, or the truth value of a proposition, or the unexpected exclusion of a favorite French theorist. Lectures like this one are understood not as highways between ideas, but as asphalt slaughterhouses where armadillos, having been crushed under the tires of tractor-trailers, leave residue for circling buzzards.
As a paraphilosopher, I’d suggest that philosophers are especially guilty of becoming comic book guys in their professional dealings.
Bogost’s cure for philosophy, of course, is an object-oriented one, which amounts to an ontological return to the great outdoors: and yet, could we not similarly vouch for the necessity for philosophy to rediscover the socio-political outdoors of public engagement? And could we not reasonably argue that the best way to achieve this return is to be as emancipated as possible from the walls of academia? Taken to its extreme conclusion (something that I speculate about but I am not completely sure I am willing to subscribe in full) this chain of thoughts would lead to a radical position. Yes, academia is today a place where cultural capital must be immediately convertible into monetary capital, and hence a system that is simply deaf to the claims of philosophy, whether it consists of constructive contributions or apologetic defenses. But this is a congenital defect of academia itself, one simply made more visible by capitalism (a capitalism that, after all, is the product of the very societies which created the University), and one that cannot be corrected a posteriori. Therefore, philosophy’s future must be outside of the University, an escape that Hadot would joyfully welcome as a return to philosophy as a way of life.
Is this a pure impossibility? Alizadeh described the mobilization at Middlesex and the events organized by the cooperation between students and staff (a cooperation that, many noted, has been the most feared phenomenon by the administators) as the actualization of an impossibility. If a Zizekian desire for the radically impossible is the real propulsive force for (revolutionary) politics, should we not recast our hopes for philosophy’s future into a practical, new form of public engagement?
The main problem with this kind of proposal would be an internal resistence from the philosophers themselves, for this opening would be identified with a lack of rigor (a word which, Bogost noted ‘most people reserve for references to the dead, but which we scholars use as an honorific’). An excellent example of this would be the recent, strongly opinionated debate which recently took place on a popular philosophy mailing list, regarding the merits or demerits of the ‘…and Philosophy’ series of books (published by Open Court), aimed at giving a philosophical interpretation of popular culture phenomena (Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, Johnny Cash and Philosopy…). I think it can be argued that, to a large extent, this simply represents an internal insecurity that philosophers have to see their discipline deprived of its aura of exclusivity. [Natural scientist, much more confident in the prestige of their discipline, have no problem in publishing both 'rigorous' research papers and books like The Physics of Star Trek or The Physics of Superheroes].
In this respect, I find it interesting that (if in different ways) both Bogost and Critchley have made appeals (justified in turn by references to Socrates and Rorty) to irony. Bogost argues that
The true ironist is always thinking in public, skeptical of private enclaves and comfort zones. For him, philosophy recedes into the background, reorienting the thinker away from the institution and toward the world.
Can we therefore envision a different way of philosophizing, able to engage with ‘the public’ in virtue of its being at once political and ironic? Formally, this would imply an opening to a new kind of philosophical production. I have argued before that it would be necessary to reconceptualize the ‘philosophical product’, emancipating ourselves from the written book, in the form –for example– of a interactive videogame, and that open access (or even open source) publishing should become the norm. In this respect, one could mention the ludic approach to philosophical writing that Graham Harman often promotes (see his Circus Philosophicus) and a new journal (pro/visions, recently advertised by Nick) presenting itself as
a new magazine/journal (double blind peer-reviewed) that seeks to push critical theory beyond the academy and into the streets. Therefore the content will reflect rigorous (and playful) thought but using language that is accessible to anyone. We seek to create a space for theory to meet praxis (and the ivory tower the people/s). Think Gramsci’s “organic intellectual” meets Chuck D and they get into a fist fight–with the world.
Practically, this means to create new spaces for philosophy outside the ‘academic philosophy’ format — spaces not limited to occasional seminars or workshops, but located within a self-sufficient, organized platform for teaching and discussions. The task of the organic intellactuals would be to strategically move between the double register of irony and rigour, to act as an essential mediator between the historical world of ‘outdoor’ actors and the normative workshop of ‘indoor’ conceptual tools. Is it a coincidence that so much of recent philosophical work comes from ‘non-philosophers’ from diverse backgrounds (geography, ecology, media studies, politics, science studies, engineering, architecture…)?
As any revolution, this implies a certain committment: it is easy for me, a somewhat bitter graduate student that naively accepted mounting debts in order to be able to pursue his interest and that foresees a grim prospect of precariousness (or unemployment) in his future, to support ‘open access education’. How many would renounce a tenured position for an extra-academic philosophical ‘position’? How many would give up the prestige of publishing with a ‘University of Whatever Press’ and rather ‘go open access’? These choices are not simply selfish but are constraints created by academia itself. Why would Middlesex administrators fear so much the hybird alliance between staff and students? Because it represents an unacceptable mixture of producers and consumers capable of short-circuiting the academic system of knowledge production. And so, academics are dissuaded from ‘giving away’ their products to students, and forced to generate a measurable output (preferably with a strong impact) constrained by mechanisms of inter-academic homage-paying and forcing him or her into academic pedantry and nitpicking.
So finally, together with ‘Who is Afraid of Philosophy?’ should we not also ask ‘What did Philosophy do Wrong?’. There is no denial that our capitalist society would gladly see the demise of critical thinking, but we should refrain from defending the discipline highlighting how short sighted the bureaucrats are. Instead we should embrace this scorn with an healthy dose of pride, and employ it as a propelling force to improve philosophical practice, not by approaching the (impossible) standards desired by the managerial elites but by doing what philosophers (should) do best: creating bridges, opening spaces, asking new questions and refining concepts for others to ask even newer questions. If when it comes to the building of a new theoretical edifice, philosophical training does give an epistemic authority to philosophers, in respect to philosophical practice –the activity of doing philosophy made possible by our very status of rather witty primates– we are all the ‘general public’.
Some Middlesex University Philosophy students, along with Philosophy professors Peter Osborne and Peter Hallward, were suspended from the University this afternoon. Hallward and Osborne were issued with letters announcing their suspension from the University with immediate effect, pending investigation into their involvement in the recent campus occupations. The suspension notice blocks them from entering University premises or contacting in any way University students and employees without the permission of Dean Ed Esche (email@example.com) or a member of the University’s Executive.
Speaking of the ‘unlawful’ association of staff with students…