On Critical Theories and Digital Media


Review of: David M. Berry (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital . London: Bloomsbury, 272 pages, and Christian Fuchs (2014) Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage, 304 pages.

What might critical theory contribute to the study of digital media? And how might the study of digital media help to advance, complicate or challenge concepts, theories and agendas associated with critical theory, broadly conceived? These questions are central to two recent books by David Berry and Christian Fuchs, who both draw on the theoretical legacy of Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research to analyse the social, economic, cultural, and political implications of new kinds of information technologies.

The two books are set against the background of the accelerating and deepening entanglement of digital technologies and their accompanying concepts and practises with nearly all areas of human life, exemplified by phenomena such as ‘flash crashes’ caused by self-learning algorithms that trade with each other automatically; weaponised computer viruses capable of destroying military equipment; brain interfaces and ‘secondary memory’ devices; ubiquitous state and corporate surveillance; networked social and political movements; hyper-temporary digital jobs; gargantuan real-time data streams; drone assassinations; attention markets; 3D printed guns; darknets and megaleaks. Berry and Fuchs both argue for the continuing relevance of thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School (as well as their philosophical progenitors and progeny), whom have hitherto occupied a comparatively marginal position in new media studies, in understanding these developments.

Fuchs’s Social Media: A Critical Introduction is a rich, readable and generously referenced primer to the controversies, promises and threats of many of the world’s most prominent social media platforms, digital services and projects. His theoretical approach is informed by a mixture of readings of Marx, the Frankfurt School (including second generation thinkers such as Habermas as well as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse) and the critical political economy tradition in media studies. Many of the chapters offer something like an immanent critique of the social media platforms under examination – unpicking and interrogating the promises and claims made about their transformative social and democratic potential with reference to critiques from popular and academic literature, as well as original empirical research conducted by Fuchs.

In this manner Fuchs critically examines the role of Twitter and Facebook in social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Egyptian revolution; the ‘corporate colonisation’ of social media which are often praised for their participatory and democratic character; the unpaid digital labour and inhumane labour conditions at hardware factories that underpin the profits of digital media companies; the ideology of ‘playbour’ (play labour) and working conditions at Google; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that ‘the world will be better if you share more’ in light of the company’s business model as ‘a huge advertising, capital accumulation, and user-exploitation machine’ (171); the political mythologies of Twitter as a manufactured and pseudo-public sphere; the politics of WikiLeaks and their stated support for what Fuchs contends is a neoliberal conception of ‘good governance’; and Wikipedia’s reflection of capitalist class relations and the ‘infinite exploitation’ enabled by its licensing model, in spite of its potential as an emancipatory digital commons project.

Throughout the book, Fuchs argues against technological determinist views that social media are inherently good or bad, progressive or regressive, illustrating the multivalent and contested nature of the platforms under examination with examples and readings in each chapter. The main problem with social media, he suggests, is that they are ‘incompletely social’, in that they ‘anticipate a full socialization of human existence’ but are also ‘limited by capitalist reality’ (256). In the conclusion of the book, he contends that ‘an alternative Internet is possible’, a ‘commons-based’ and ‘classless’ Internet, ‘that is not based on capital accumulation, advertising, profit, ideology and a stratified attention economy, but rather enables knowledge, communication and collaboration for their own sake as social activities between humans’ (257).

At the centre of this vision for an alternative Internet are a ‘co-operative information society’ (264), and ‘participatory democracy’, which he equates with communism (239). He proposes a programme of measures to create the conditions for such an alternative internet, including stronger data protection legislation, opt-in online advertising, corporate watchdog projects and the establishment of alternative internet platforms. Finally, Fuchs says that in addition to what Slavoj Žižek describes as the ‘ever stronger socialization of cyberspace’, an ‘alternative societal context of internet use’ is needed (259). This new ‘collaborative society’ requires both participatory democracy and ‘collective ownership and control of the means of production’ (265).

While Fuchs’s book is intended as an introductory textbook, the brief account of critical theory that it gives at the outset is notably broad and presents a remarkably unified agenda. It foregrounds the commonalities rather than the tensions both between different thinkers and generations of the Frankfurt School, as well as between the Frankfurt School and other thinkers who are broadly characterised as critical theorists (from figures associated with the critical political economy of media to Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Jodi Dean and Evgeny Morozov). While some of these tensions are acknowledged in the text, as well as in the questions and exercises at the end of several of the chapters, the heterogeneity of critical arguments could have been more explicitly used to enrich discussion of the implications of social media, as well to give readers a more nuanced view of the work of different thinkers whose work is used.

Fuchs’s treatment sometimes makes it seem as though adherents of critical theory of all stripes were in possession of a shared and coherent overarching political programme. However, the politics of the Frankfurt School alone (let alone the other ‘critical’ figures alluded to in the book) were notoriously diverse – ranging, as one recent article argues, from the ‘engaged withdrawal’ of Adorno and Horkheimer, to the ‘Great Refusal’ of Marcuse, to the procedural democracy of Jürgen Habermas, to Axel Honneth’s politics of recognition (Chambers 2004). A more granular exposition of these views could have benefited the book from both a scholarly and pedagogical perspective, as well as informing reflection about the different kinds of political responses to social media that have become more pervasive in the wake of concerns about privacy and the commodification of personal information – not to mention informing further critical engagement with the potential weaknesses and limitations of some of the critical thinkers alluded to in the book.

Little is said about the early Frankfurt School’s rejection of the ‘vulgar Marxist’ conception of the reducibility of an epiphenomenal superstructure to an economic base – nor why purely economic analysis is not sufficient for the provision of a critical theory of society according to these thinkers (see e.g. Geuss 2004). Further discussion along these lines could have been complementary to the book’s significant emphasis on the political economics of social media (including profit models and ownership structures), as well as opening up space to further explore how social media, digital technologies and the practises and discourses around them contribute to the reshaping of politics, culture and society in non-economic terms, and why this matters. On this score, there is a burgeoning wealth of literature on social media from a wide variety of different fields that could have been alluded to more extensively and more sympathetically, to discuss how the affordances and imaginaries of new media are guiding and reconfiguring ideals and behaviours in many different areas of life (such as – to give a few recent examples – Weller, Bruns, Burgess, Mahrt, Puschmann 2013; Rogers 2013; Gillespie 2010).

To mention one more point: at the outset of the book Fuchs defines the ‘critical’ in critical theory largely in terms of the critique of power, inequality, ideology and political economy. Yet there are at least two other important senses of the term deriving from the post-Kantian philosophical tradition upon which the Frankfurt School draws, which are not explicitly highlighted in the introduction and which might nevertheless prove valuable for those interested in drawing on critical theory to study digital media. Firstly, in the wake of Kant’s critical philosophy, early thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School – notably Adorno and Benjamin – had an interest in the conditions which enable and structure experience, as opposed to ‘pre-critical’ conceptions of experience as immediately given (see, e.g. Jay 2005: 312-360). Secondly, also following Kant, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School aspired to be both self-critical and self-reflexive (see, e.g. Rush 2004: 10). These two senses of the term could be potentially relevant, for example, when thinking about how experience might be structured and mediated by digital technologies, or when thinking about the concepts, theories and ideals which are deployed in examining them.

David Berry’s Critical Theory and the Digital is more explicitly cognisant of both the heterogeneity of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, as well as the way in which it draws on and reacts against the Kantian conception of critical philosophy. While Fuchs’s book guides the reader through a series of engagements with particular platforms, services and projects, Berry’s book takes a much more expansive look at how the theoretical resources of critical theory might be used to think about and critically engage with digital technologies and digital media. He is concerned not only with social media, but with how ‘computational capitalism’ aspires to ‘remake the world in its computational image’ (127) – in particular focusing on the role of software. Central to his account is the notion of ‘computationality’, which is ‘a specific historical constellation of intelligibility’ (60) that is ‘defined by a certain set of computational knowledges, practices, methods and categories’ (94).

From the Frankfurt School tradition Berry mainly focuses on Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse – commenting in a footnote that he plans to examine the relevance of studying the digital in later figures like Jürgen Habermas, Albrecht Wellmer and Axel Honneth in another book (217). In addition to these thinkers from the Frankfurt School, Berry’s book is well-versed in contemporary media and new media theory, and draws extensively on arguments, concepts and insights from a wide range of social theorists, philosophers and other thinkers in fashioning his own outline of a critical theory of the digital – from Latour to Kittler, Stiegler to Gadamer. But the two figures to whom Berry owes most in the book are Adorno and Heidegger. He refashions and synthesises elements of Adorno’s negative dialectics and Heidegger’s phenomenological account of technology in the service of a new programme for studying the digital.

While Heidegger’s phenomenology serves as the backdrop to his account of computationality, Berry follows Adorno in challenging its ‘metaphysical’ character and in insisting on a re-reading which is more attentive to the social and historical mediation of beings rather than the ‘epochal history of Being’ (91-92). He argues that Heidegger’s notion of technicity – characterised by the experience of beings as ‘objects that can be submitted to control’ – may be useful in understanding ‘modern’ technologies like electricity as ‘standing reserve’, but is a poor fit for understanding ‘postmodern real-time data stream technologies’ (60). To address this gap he proposes that the concept of ‘computationality’ is better suited to analysing the distinctive affordances of software and data streams, and their growing role in organising, schematising and providing a grammar for being, life, labour, politics, economics, society and culture in the twenty-first century.

Berry offers the phrase ‘compactant’ (or computational actant) as an analytical device to assist with studying the complex computational structures and processes with which we find ourselves surrounded. The ‘paradigm case of computationality’, he argues, is ‘code/software’ (95), which, as Rob Kitchin puts it, ‘codifies the world into rules, routines, algorithms, and databases, and then uses these to do work in the world to render aspects of everyday life programmable’ (123). Alluding to Adorno’s critique of identity thinking, Berry asks whether computationality has not come to represent ‘the incorporation of identity thinking par excellence’ (196), and illustrates this with an exploration of the history and mechanics of pattern-recognition in software (128-130). Throughout the book Berry discusses a plethora of examples of what he argues is computationality in action – including in the form of web bugs and user tracking systems, self-tracking and quantified self-movements, gamification, microlabour, the architecture of mass surveillance uncovered by Snowden, the algorithms underpinning financial systems and ‘cognitive capture by corporations through notions of augmented humanity and the computational intervention in pre-consciousness’ (193). These kinds of ‘parameterization of our being-in-the-world’ (167) and delegation of norms and values into ‘an invisible site of power’ in the form of algorithms (189) leads Berry to ask: ‘how much computation can democracy stand, and what should be the response to it?’ (193).

One response to computationality about which Berry remains deeply unconvinced is the loose-knit group of thinkers associated with Speculative Realism or Object Oriented Ontology (dubbed ‘SR/OOO’ for most of the book). This ‘first internet or born-digital philosophy’ (104) also draws on Heidegger, but Berry accuses its adherents of promoting ‘onticology’ (114) or ‘philosography’ (116), an essentially descriptive enterprise which fetishises the enumeration of beings, often in the form of the ‘rhetoric of lists’ (110) and ‘cascades and tumbling threads of polythetic classification’ (117). He accuses this group of thinkers – including Graham Harman, Ian Bogost and Levi Bryant – of seeking ‘liberation’ from ‘repetitive accounts’ of human inequality and suffering, eschewing any sense of historical or social context, and celebrating the ephemerality of the objects of computational capitalism (112, 118). Berry condemns this philosophical programme as an uncritical and apolitical theoretical derivative of computational capitalism, mirroring and venerating its manifold phantasmagorias, and abandoning conscience in favour of spectacle.

Instead, Berry advocates the ‘public use of critical computational reason’ (214), as well as pursuing various strategies and practises to make the digital infrastructures of computation ‘visible and available to critique’ (209). He suggests that the exercise of such critical computational reason requires more than a purely theoretical engagement, and proposes the development of a ‘critical praxis’ centred around what he calls ‘iteracy’, or the practice of ‘being able to read and write texts and computational processes’ (188). He argues that ‘the constellations of concepts that underlie and sustain computational capitalism need to be rigorously contested and the software that makes it possible hacked, disassembled and unbuilt’ (204) – and that ‘future critical theory of code and software is committed to unbuilding, disassembling and deformation of existing code/software systems, together with leaking, glitching and overloading these systems’ (147). Iteracy would be included in a programme of what Berry dubs ‘digital Bildung’, or the ‘totality of education in the digital university’ (188). As well as disassembling, disrupting, hacking and challenging the infrastructure of computational capitalism, Berry proposes the ‘democratisation of cryptography’, the creation of ‘protective structures’ and the ‘composition of alternative systems’ (147, 205). While these kinds of projects ‘might offer some respite’, he maintains that in the longer term ‘more collective responses will be needed’ (205). In the future, he says, ‘an active citizenry will be a computationally enlightened one’ (193).

Berry’s book is a significant contribution towards rethinking the study of new media in light of critical theory, and for the study of critical theory in light of new media. His fluency and dexterity in assembling, animating and enlisting such a wealth of material in constructing his case will no doubt provoke further encounters between the fields upon which he draws. I shall restrict myself to commenting on two areas around which further elucidation would be welcomed.

Firstly, in pursuance of the self-reflexivity which he commends in the Frankfurt School, it would be interesting to hear further reflection on the visions and ideals which inform his outline of a critical computational praxis – from the ‘glass boxing’ and ‘glass blocs’ that are his response to black boxes and blocs, to the emphasis on computationally savvy forms of disruption recognisable to both ‘cyberlibertarian’ hackers and Silicon Valley pundits (as discussed in, e.g. Barbrook & Cameron 1996; Turner 2008; Streeter 2010). While he makes an intriguing but undeveloped allusion to ‘open access and transparency as ideology’ (193), he doesn’t otherwise expound on the politics of megaleaks or computational, organisational or political transparency and openness, which would have been useful in light of recent critiques of their malleability and use in advancing many very different kinds of political projects (e.g. Roberts 2012; Tkacz 2015).

Secondly, while Berry explicitly states that he is largely focusing on the early Frankfurt School, it would be interesting to see how, if at all, his encounter with the critical theory tradition might assume a different form and emphasis through engagement with later thinkers. To mention just one point of interest in this regard: it would be informative to see his response to Wellmer’s reservations about the critique of identity thinking and the ‘homelessness of the political’ in Adorno’s work (Wellmer 2007).

Where do these two books leave us with respect to using critical theory to think about digital media? Has critique run out of steam, as Bruno Latour suggests (Latour 2004)? Or do our authors succeed in showing that there may be life in it yet? Even if we do not share all of their conclusions, Fuchs’s and Berry’s respective readings and reworkings of elements of the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory may offer alternative and complementary frames, lenses and conceptual instruments for studying digital media to those already available in the nascent new media canon. Through their dialectical forays into the social, cultural, historical, economic and political contexts in which digital media and the mythologies around them are performed, they challenge more rigidly descriptive approaches and encourage more ambitious theoretical experimentation. They both call for a stronger normative dimension to the study of digital media, for the development of critical praxis as well as critical theory, as well as for a fundamental re-imagining and recomposition of the digital structures and systems which shape and mediate ever more aspects of earthly life.



The Privateering Critic

Agamben’s theory of the homo sacer has become a central theoretical perspective on sovereign violence especially after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. In his study Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), Agamben proposes the sovereign and the homo sacer as enduring and mutually constitutive poles of rule that can be identified throughout Western history. He understands the homo sacer (sacred man) as a carrier of bare life – a person who may be killed by all and sacrificed by none as ze is arrested at the threshold between the inside and the outside of the law. Because the sovereign, too, exists at the threshold of the inside and outside of the law, the sovereign and the homo sacer stand in an ‘ideal relationship’ (Vasilache 2007) as the inherently active sovereign constitutes hirself as sovereign through producing the inherently passive and all-enduring homo sacer. Agamben proposes this constellation in order to formulate a philosophical critique of Western understandings of life in general. He fundamentally attacks any understanding of life that is tied to political representation in order to be considered life in the first place. In order to formulate this larger point, he uses the example of totalitarianism (in Hannah Arendt’s sense) as the most suitable example to illustrate his argument. Arendt’s construction of a totalitarian sovereign is intimately linked to the Holocaust and thus to a disturbingly literal distinction of human life worthy or unworthy of living – a distinction that, in this particular case, is widely accepted as problematic to say the least. Agamben uses this impressive example to render the concentration camp a symptomatic syndrome of modernity and to conclude, essentially, that any political order based on the logic of political representation in a Hobbesian sense carries within itself a pronounced totalitarian element.

In the humanities of the United States and beyond, this argument has been especially fruitful in making sense of institutional torture scandals such as, for instance, those of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. From the start, Agamben’s philosophical point has been read as a position from which a radical systemic critique could be formulated within Western modernity. However, this quite intentional interpretation of his theory raises the question of the critic’s own position in relation to the sovereign-homo sacer relationship. How is it that the critic can not only identify the ‘true’ nature of representative sovereignty as one that necessarily constitutes itself via homines sacri, but that ze can also formulate this critique from a position that successfully claims a detached outside perspective – despite the fact that the critic tends to operate from within this criticized structure? How can we bring together the critic who is inside of the law with an assumed perspective that stands without it, and how can we understand the particularities and problems of this position?

In this essay, I propose to complement the dual relation between the sovereign and the homo sacer with the relationship between pirate and privateer who also traditionally constitute each other at the threshold between the inside and the outside of the law, albeit in a different way. This ‘second’ threshold which is made visible by pirate and privateer is not one that constitutes sovereignty as sovereignty, but is one that renders certain forms of reference to sovereignty by violent actors within the state of exception potentially legitimate to the sovereign, and therefore worthy of re-inclusion in the law. This second threshold between the inside and the outside of the law indicated by pirate and privateer will be treated here as not one that contradicts, but rather complements the sovereign-homo sacer threshold suggested by Agamben. It helps pinpoint the critic’s own suggested legitimacy, and hir relationship to the representative sovereignty ze critiques but also speaks to, in an attempt to make hir criticism of the sovereign understood as ‘constructive.’

In order to pursue this argument, I will first elaborate on the properties of privateer and pirate that I will foreground (they, too, will be treated as if they existed in an ‘ideal relationship’ to each other as well as to the law), and then exemplarily re-read Agamben’s interpretation of a lay of Marie de France in his study Homo Sacer. In this reading, it will become evident that Agamben already implies this second distinction at the threshold of the law, but that he does so selectively. By this selection, he renders invisible a central aspect of the sovereign ban, the key concept by which the production of homines sacri is executed. I will conclude from my reading that Agamben’s criticism of totalitarianism does not undo the problem of the ban, but that it itself relies on a very specific naturalization of the ban – namely, the ban associated with an anticipated revolutionary ban of representative sovereignty itselfan. It is his naturalized treatment of the utopian revolutionary ban, I argue, which allows Agamben to pose as a Western critic who stands above and beyond the totalitarian logic of representative sovereignty without actually leaving the fold of the representative order. He does not, however, solve or even sufficiently address the philosophical problem of the ban itself.

The Pirate-Privateer-Divide and the Nature of the Sovereign

To use the pirate as the missing link to Agamben’s theory is not an altogether new idea. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Agamben’s English translator, has been the first to link the pirate to Agamben’s theory of the homo sacer in his study The Enemy of All of 2009. In Heller-Roazen’s argument, the figure of the pirate – the title-giving ‘enemy of all [humankind]’ – appears as a legalist vehicle to enable and facilitate the sovereign identification of homines sacri. Heller-Roazen addresses the question which persons or populations may in fact be most vulnerable to an identification as homines sacri, and by which standards they are made vulnerable to the ban. Theoretically speaking, his pirate is essentially a potential homo sacer rather than a separate entity in hir own right (2009: 17-18, 95, 160-161, 180, 187-189).

In pirate law, the status of the pirate as a potential homo sacer can be largely derived from the legal concept of universal jurisdiction, a notion which Heller-Roanzen refers back to concepts of piracy in Antiquity (2009: 17-22). The specifically modern notion of universal jurisdiction has been linked to piracy at least since 1705 and means that, because the pirate as an enemy of all humankind constitutes a universal threat, every sovereign may destroy hir anywhere and by any means necessary – that is to say, even if a foreign pirate has molested foreign subjects in a foreign territory (Rubin 1997: 103-104). In singular deviation from customary limitations of a sovereign’s control (especially over foreign territories and populations), universal jurisdiction against pirates allows sovereigns to intervene violently as well as legitimately against them anywhere. This pirate-specific legal situation indeed renders the pirate a figure that may be killed by all and sacrificed by none – and that is arrested at the threshold of the law by design.

Nevertheless, the pirate is distinct from the homo sacer in an important sense: namely, that the pirate chooses to stand between the inside and the outside of the law. This aspect requires some specification. In contrast to Antique models of piracy which are overwhelmingly explicit about the sovereign elements of piracy (largely because pre-modern pirates tend to be entities such as coastal clans and predatory city states), the modern notion of piracy is legally derived from the construction of the privateer. The institution of privateering fundamentally structures maritime warfare between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, and is itself located in a legal realm that could be described, with Agamben, as a state of exception. The main idea behind the creation of the privateer has been to prevent any random assault on maritime shipping triggering fully-fledged warfare between sovereigns. The privateer, by hir very legal essence, stands both inside and outside the law so as to prevent the necessity of sovereign protection of both the privateer and hir victims at sea. In other words, the privateer, even more so than the pirate, is purposefully designed to be an entity whose position is impossible to pinpoint conclusively within the representative sovereign structures ze violently interferes with.

In contrast to the pirate, the privateer is not recognized as such after hir first attack at sea, but from the first time ze leaves port: the privateer is a privately equipped man-of-war that is tied to the sovereign by contract. The contract traditionally states that enemies of the sovereign and their allies may be molested by the privateer, whereas the subjects and specified allies of the sovereign hirself must be left unmolested. In return, the privateer finds safe haven in the ports of the sovereign, where ze can make repairs, recruit sailors, and sell hir plunder at a profit. When in port, the privateer must also pay a percentage of hir profits to the sovereign, and it is this gesture which actualizes the validity of the contract whenever the privateer comes to port. Correspondingly, the promise of protection by the sovereign is also limited to the port, where protection is conditioned by the previous existence of a contract as well as its renewed validation. When at sea, the privateer alone bears the risks of hir trade; if ze is captured, the early modern sovereign can (and more often than not, does) disavow the privateer and leave hir to hir captors, who then proceed to try hir as a pirate.

In this sense, the privateer may be killed by all as a pirate, but is sacrificed by none as the member of an official army – this is a notable difference to the professional navies that begin to emerge in the mid-eighteenth century as men-of-war permanently protected by the sovereign. The privateer can be understood, for the purposes of this essay, as a homo sacer who is endowed with the ability to use violence actively, and who strategically uses violence and its ends to re-enter the law repeatedly.

The privateering-derived pirate is very basically defined as one who ignores the privateering contract by not refraining from molesting the subjects and allies of any sovereign. Ze is an enemy of all humankind in the sense that all, rather than almost all, ships at sea are potential prey to hir. While the pirate at sea is arrested in the same state of exception as the privateer, hir decision to commit violence is not strategically geared towards perpetually re-entering the law. Instead, hir violence in the state of exception is sovereign in the sense that it constitutes hir as a third entity whose violence is exclusively a marker that identifies hir as pirate. Early modern thinkers have anticipated Agamben’s argument on the sovereign-homo sacer relationship insofar as they have recognized this constitutive dimension of violence at sea as quasi-sovereign. The pirate is legitimately destroyed by the sovereign because of hir active choice to exercise violence against populations that is to some extent indistinguishable from the sovereign production of homines sacri. For this reason, scholarship on ‘classic’ modern piracy (white, Christian, colonial, homosocial male, and privateering-derived in its core definition) has highlighted time and again that the pirate is both a potential homo sacer and a potential sovereign – and thus a more complex figure in relation to Agamben’s theory than Heller-Roazen, for example, allows. It is in this spirit that Montesquieu, for example, views the pirate band as the embryonic version of any representative sovereign order, and squarely identifies the pirate as a potential sovereign by hir very nature (1748 [2010, 362-364]).

In this sense, the threshold of the law opened up by pirate and privateer draws attention to the general theoretical problem that it is not only the Agambian sovereign who can reduce humans to bare life. In the case of pirates and privateers, sufficient philosophical and legal discursive tradition is in place to make these maritime cases theoretically relatable to Agamben. In the case of pirates and privateers who operate at sea, extra-sovereign violence in the state of exception is automatically committed; the state of exception is in place as soon as a committer is a privateer or a privateering-derived pirate because these entities are precariously bound to the sovereign by design. They are distinguished from each other, however, by their different position towards the sovereign while at sea and while in port. In Western privateering and pirate law, a distinction is made between legitimate violence that is geared towards re-entering the sovereign law, and illegitimate violence that occurs in the state of exception on the basis of choices not geared towards re-integration. The pirate, by not submitting to the law either in practice or in reference, rivals the very sovereign prerogative of constituting hirself by the reduction of others to bare life, and by hir threat to even reduce the sovereign hirself to bare life if possible. Accordingly, hir arrival in port may very well result in invasion rather than in a plea for sovereign protection.

Re-Reading the Sovereign Ban in Marie de France’s Bisclavret

So far, my argument about pirates and privateers may read like a theoretical intervention that has little to do with the position of the critic in Agamben’s Homo Sacer. However, I claim that Agamben constantly uses the theoretical premises of the pirate-privateer distinction to structure the overall perspective of his argument. As a case in point let me draw attention to the chapter ‘The Ban and the Wolf’, and a passage within it that is particularly illustrative of the link between the two thresholds in his argument. In this example, Agamben interprets a piece of literature to help illustrate central relationships postulated by him; he concretely identifies specific figures within this text as epitomes of sovereign and homo sacer. It is on the basis of the original literary text that I will more directly link the privateer-pirate relationship to Agamben’s theory of the sovereign-homo sacer relationship.

The lay Bisclavret, written by the poet Marie de France in the twelfth century, is the story of a baron (who is, in Agamben’s reading, the homo sacer) who is close to and loved by the king (the sovereign) but periodically leaves the realm to roam the forest as a werewolf. When he tells his secret to his wife, she conspires with another knight, soon to be her lover, to steal her husband’s clothes while he is in his transformed state. His clothes gone, the baron’s ban is complete as he has to permanently remain in animal form. One day the king goes hunting and comes across the werewolf. Since the wolf exhibits extraordinary servility, the king takes him in as a soon-beloved pet. When the deceitful baroness appears at court sometime afterwards, the wolf attacks her and bites off her nose. Because the wolf’s exhibition of violence is so uncharacteristic, the court proceeds to interpret it; the baroness’s treachery is discovered, the wolf is transformed back into a man, and the baroness and her lover are permanently banned by the king. The baroness’s ban is, in fact, so permanent that even her children inherit her lacking nose. Agamben himself, who omits this last piece of information about the lay, highlights two points about this story:

‘[First, w]hat is essential here is the detail […] of the temporary character of the metamorphosis, which is tied to the possibility of setting aside and secretly putting on clothes again. The transformation into a werewolf corresponds perfectly to the state of exception, during which (necessarily limited) time the city is dissolved and men enter into a zone in which they are no longer distinct from beasts. The story also shows the necessity of particular formalities marking the entry into – or the exit from – the zone of indistinction between the animal and the human (which corresponds to the clear proclamation of the state of exception as formally distinct from the rule). […]

[Second, t]he special proximity of werewolf and sovereign too is ultimately shown in the story. [When the werewolf sees the king in the forest,] he runs toward him and grabs hold of his stirrup, licking his legs and his feet as if he were imploring the king’s mercy. Amazed at the beast’s humanity […], the king brings him to live with him, and they become inseparable. The inevitable encounter with the ex-wife and the punishment of the woman follow. What is important, however, is that Bisclavret’s final transformation back into a human takes place on the very bed of the sovereign.’ (1998, 107-108)

When we read his interpretation in light of the pirate-privateer relationship that I have just sketched, we are immediately alterted to several particularities in the emphasis of Agamben’s analysis. First, he is only interested in one of the two bans presented in the lay, namely that of the baron, and is dismissive of the ‘inevitable’ ban of ‘the woman.’ Second, he focuses on that ban which is caused by the extra-sovereign ‘nature’ of the baron as a werewolf, whereas he refrains from discussing the ban that actually results from a sovereign decision. Third, the ban he focuses on is a ban which – and this is ‘essential’ here – inherently allows for a reintegration into the law because it is linked not to the sovereign decision but to the inherently limited sovereign control over the forest. Fourth, the lay, as well as Agamben, emphasizes the love that continues to inform the relationship between king and baron across the baron’s various incarnations as man-wolf, wolf, and as we may presume, fully restored man.

Especially the third and fourth points show that the properties of the homo sacer that Agamben carves out in this particular example share important characteristics of the privateer. The privateer is an extra-sovereign entity not by explicit sovereign verdict, but by design; this design is, moreover, linked to the nature of the sea as a space inherently beyond full sovereign control.

Also, the privateer’s ability to move in and out of the law is made possible by his constantly renewed actualization of allegiance to the sovereign both at sea, where he refrains from attacking the sovereign and hir allies (consider the first encounter of the werewolf with the king and his hunting party), and especially more particularly in port where the privateer actively and repeatedly proves hirself a loyal subject (consider the werewolf’s behavior in court that is characterized by docile gestures as well as the active exposure of the baroness). In other words, the love that exists between king and baron throughout the lay is the central premise for the possibility of re-transformation into a human being or, as it were, into a life that satisfies the principles of political, rather than bare, life.

But what about the baroness? Why is her ban omitted from the analysis, and why is the sovereign decision to ban her – which is permanent enough to reach across the noseless generations – not important to Agamben? Perhaps the problem is that in contrast to the baron, her relationship to the sovereign is not at all clear. It is she, not the king, who actually makes the decision to ban the baron into permanent animal form: other than the baron, she is not merely banned passively, but she both bans and is banned. Her position within the entire complex of the ban in the lay renders her both a potential sovereign (who constitutes hirself by hir ability to ban, however incompletely in the baroness’s case) and a potential homo sacer (who is in acute danger of being banned, a danger that also materializes itself in the lay). If the baron shares central features with the privateer as ze was defined here, the baroness shares central features with the pirate as an entity with a potential to sovereignty as well as an existence as a homo sacer.

Let me reformulate the story’s plot once more. Faced with the discovery of her husband’s transformative nature, the baroness trespasses on the king’s prerogative to ban, and sets the story in motion by arresting her husband in the state of exception (with the assistance of her lover, who is, and remains, her informal vassal just as the baron is, and remains, a formal vassal to the king). In relation to the baron, the baroness assumes the role of a sovereign because she permanently arrests him in the state of nature. This is precisely why the banned werewolf must now make an explicit effort to appeal to the king that involves her actions against him. When in wolf-man form, he had always been able to return to both wife and king; after his wife has actively banned him, he must now appeal to the king to actively lift her ban from him. The king readily accepts the wolf’s submissive gestures. The wolf’s submission to the king is described as total (as in the vivid example of feet-licking), but it does not in fact reduce the baron to helpless passivity: instead, siding with the king is the only option he has to avenge himself and to be returned to human form. Since the baroness has banned him in a gesture of sovereignty, to expose her means to alert the king to an encroachment on his own sovereignty. The king can only respond in one of two ways: either by banning her in her own right, or by officially endorsing the baroness’s claim that the sovereignty of the king over her and the baron, as well as her loyality vows to her husband, are meaningless. The werewolf’s need for re-transformation and revenge, and the king’s need to reconstitute himself as the only one who may actively arrest people in the state of exception, both require the baroness’s permanent transformation into a homo sacer. Indeed, the simultaneity of these desires is constitutive for the lay’s neat conclusion of a good order being fully restored.

Agamben postulates that the baron in his werewolf form is a homo sacer – and always only temporarily so, as he emphasizes – but it is worth noting that this figure is first and foremost identified as a baron in the lay, in other words, as a figure primarily defined by his service to the king. This is strongly indicated both by his constant servility towards the sovereign and by his violence on behalf of the sovereign. The aspect that allows the baron’s constant transition back and forth is based on the implicit assumption that both sovereign and privateer always remain invested in upholding and stabilizing the realm of the law in general principle, even though they act outside of the regulating reach of the law whenever they actualize themselves as sovereign and privateer. The privateer, in this sense, is an unrecognized representative of the sovereign wherever ze goes. All ze needs to be transformed back into a recognized representative of the sovereign is the renewed sovereign verdict that ze is in fact such a representative. The privateering character in this lay proves hir allegiance by exposing a piratical character who only pretends to be representative of the sovereign king but in fact does not have his interests in mind.

It is, indeed, the baron’s biting off the baroness’s nose that is the defining moment of the story, for two reasons. First, it is only his violence against her that exposes her as an illegitimate imposter to the king’s sovereignty. The docile werewolf in the lay shows uncharacteristic and surprisingly violent aggression against the invasive carrier of (concealed) piratical imposition. Only because this violence begs interpretation that explicitly takes into account the baron’s own unwavering loyality to the king, is the baroness’s piratical imposition on the prerogative to ban detected as such.

Second, it is this rather than any other act which begins his re-transformation. It does not in fact matter whether the transformation back to human form occurs on the king’s bed, the king’s floor, or in the king’s vegetable garden. Instead, what brings the baron back to human form is his offering of the baroness as the one who should take his place in the permament state of exception. What actually frees the privateering homo sacer in this lay is the exposure and subsequent offering of this pirate as someone who should be banned, and is in fact banned (without much comment from Agamben except that it was to be expected). The privateering character in this lay may change hir status not by servitude, but only by actively exposing a piratical imposter to sovereignty.

The transformation of the homo sacer lost at sea into a privateer returning to port and offering hir prey to the sovereign – the identified pirate, a genuine and manifest threat to the sovereign – is a grim and problematic passage because it makes clear that it is not in fact the proximity to the king which reverses the ban. This is not a story of a homo sacer who is rehabilitated out of mercy, gratitude, or the sovereign recognition of his allegiance. The baron spends considerable time as the king’s submissive pet without being re-transformed. It is instead the story of a rehabilitation brought about by the offer of an exchange. The baron is released from the state of exception only because he can offer the baroness as someone who can be banned in his stead. Because he was banned into permanent werewolf form by her personally, and is able to expose this act as an act of sovereign encroachment, the king rewards him by simply reversing their places in terms of the law.

As becomes obvious now, the ability to return comes at a price. The baron demonstrates – indeed, must demonstrate – throughout the lay that the violence of the ban he experiences does not change his attitude towards the sovereign ban as principally just. It does not seem to be problematic to him that his king constitutes his sovereignty by the very method of the ban that the baron himself has suffered and from which he desperately tries to free himself. Having access to a ‘port’ at least once offers the opportunity to escape a permament state of exception, but the price is to actively and continuously legitimate the existence of the state of exception as such. The privateering homo sacer has experienced firsthand what the ban means, and must still affirm it as unproblematic for the pirate ze delivers to the sovereign. The ban itself is not questioned or disabled as a notion at any moment. Instead, to accept the notion of the ban as legitimate in principle allows the homo sacer some leeway in renegotiating the violent consequences of the ban for hirself. The willingness to accept the ban as legitimate is proven by the baron’s plea to ban the baroness. Before he pleads this, he will not be re-transformed. It is this quid-pro-quo exchange of banning a pirate instead of the pirate-exposing privateer, this compromise which actively upholds the ban as a necessary aspect of re-transformation, which Agamben renders invisible by excluding the baroness from his analysis.

The Privateering Critic: Exposure on Whose Behalf?

Why is it problematic, then, that Agamben has not talked about the baroness? And what does this omission say about his own position as a critic, if it says anything? At this point, we come full circle to the philosophical argument with which we started, namely, that Agamben’s theory is a fundamental critique of representative sovereignty, and that the critique relies on the exposure of the totalitarian element inherent to it. This claim itself, I suggest, is a form of posing as a privateering homo sacer. As a gesture, it is quite comparable to the baron who bites off the nose of a secretly imposing baroness, and it, too, comes at a price.

Agamben, by attacking representative sovereignty through charging it with a totalitarian core, evokes the revolutionary removal of it – in other words, representative sovereignty’s own permanent ban. This tendency of the argument is best illustrated in a somewhat heavy-handed first sketch of Agamben’s approach to Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism, elaborated in the article ‘On the Limits of Violence’ of 1970. In this very early article, Agamben equates the notions of revolutionary and sacred violence; he claims that sacred violence is the only violence that can bring about an authentic revolution because it stands outside of history and can therefore truly end one time and bring about another one which follows different ontological premises. It may be somewhat unfair to compare the work of the Agamben of 1970 with the far more mature work of 1995, but what has certainly remained of his earlier work is the fascination with absolute relationships as a productive way to comment on the political present and the ways in which they have to be changed. In this sense, to identify these absolute relationships, such as the sovereign-homo sacer relationship, is in an important sense strategic – and if the theory of the homo sacer is the basis of a structural criticism, it too comes with a quid pro quo that precisely does not overcome the constitutive existence of the ban in any way. Instead, it obscures the continued existence of the ban as a constitutive factor even of the most fundamental critique.

Consider, for example, how Agamben’s theory has been made fruitful for analysis especially in U.S. American scholarship after 9/11. The breakthrough for the theory of the homo sacer in U. S. American scholarship came with an article by Donald E. Pease entitled ‘C. L. R. James, Moby-Dick, and the Emergence of Transnational American Studies’ (2002). In the article, Pease interprets C. L. R. James as a homo sacer who is detained on Ellis Island and is thus suspended in a state of exception by the Cold War security apparatus. Rather than raving about the injustice of his detainment, Pease relates, James writes a scholarly interpretation of Moby Dick which demonstrated that he, a homo sacer thrown into a state of exception by the Cold War security apparatus, in fact understands the essential American character better and is already more of an American than ‘they,’ who pose to act in the American interest, ever will be. The security apparatus, James’ critique and Pease’s interpretation likewise suggest, illegitimately pretends to speak in the name of that America on which it has imposed itself, whereas James appeals to the true American character, and pleads for his own release and recognition in exchange for exposing a totalitarian bureaucracy. The security apparatus, now glaringly exposed to the American people as a totalitarian imposter to national interest and character, is then suggested to be removed and overthrown (in other words: banned) instead of the literary scholar (Pease 2002), the immigrant (Kaplan 2005), the civilian caught in a Kafkaseque net of bureaucratic punishment (Butler 2004), or the foreigner randomly labelled terrorist (Heller-Roazen 2009). All of these interpretations constitute, in their more focused critique of U.S. American institutions, abbreviated versions of Agamben’s general suggestion that the only solution to the all-encompassing problem of representative sovereignty is a revolution that bans the system in its entirety.

Now, one could ask, what of it? Even if the fiction of a radical revolution that hurls representative sovereignty into the dustbin of history is a necessary theoretical vehicle, has it not on the other hand been fruitful in exposing a real theoretical problem in the concept of representative sovereignty? Did the baroness, in the incarnation of representative sovereignty, not have it coming to her by putting itself in the wrong in the first place? Do these critical exposures not finally allow us to think of ‘piratical’ systems as problems to be addressed since we have, after all, the welfare of our true king in mind – the overarching notion of non-objectified and non-excluded life? Do not these critics simply hope to be recognized as faithful privateers in the service of life itself, and can this possibly be called an ignoble cause?

I neither dispute the theoretical advantages of Agamben’s theory nor try to belittle the underlying concerns; to be invested in the cause of accepting life as unconditional is noble. However, to pose as a privateer in the service of life in the spirit of Agamben renders invisible, by the very premise of the theoretical construction, the fact that a massive ban of those piratical, illegitimate ‘totalitarians’ is naturalized as quite unproblematic within the critique. Such a ban seems ‘inevitable’ for a truly life-affirming utopian order, just like the lay’s removal of the unruly baroness is inevitable for arriving at a happy ending. There is an inner contradiction to be suspected in a theory that criticizes the sovereign ban as a totalitarian tool on the one hand, but does not address the ban as a condition of revolutionary critique on the other.


Lastly, there is another problem to be addressed which is, perhaps, more of a postscripted open question. If representative sovereignty is a general philosophical, as well as a political, problem that runs through Western history, and if it is a problem that requires urgent attention and perhaps even a solution, what can we make of the greater analytical problem that the Agambian critic remains a privateer in a pirate port? After all, do not all of the critics quoted in this essay, most prominently Agamben himself, profit from the benefits of, say, national representation? And do they not personally represent important and highly respected strands of academic scholarship, do they not represent their universities and their disciplines, and are their voices not heard much louder than others for that very reason? While these questions may be read as somewhat routine accusations of systemic hypocrisy, there is, I think, an important problem at the bottom of the slightly comical situation of the eloquent Western A-list scholar who attacks the notion of representative sovereignty as totalitarian.question returns us, ultimately, to the question of what qualitatively distinguishes the pirate from the privateer. The privateer always relies, in some way or another, on being understood as a beneficial entity for whomever ze addresses. Ze must communicate hir principal allegiance at any given moment; this is how ze ensures hir freedom to move in and out of the state of exception. Whenever the state of exception threatens to be permanent for hir, the privateer must resort to exposing a pirate who violates known and valued principles (in the examples used here: of sovereignty), hoping that the pirate instead of hirself will suffer the permanent ban. The privateer enjoys freedom only on the condition of hir basic affirmation of at least some of the principles that constitute sovereignty. The pirate, on the other hand, deviates and perverts; ze renders accepted norms and traditions insignificant by hir actions; ze eludes conclusive judgement. Instead of referencing a utopian revolution that will ban entire orders in the name of humankind, we might perhaps do well to take a step back and to ponder the puzzling perspective of the pirate. More specifically, one may raise the question of whether a theoretical perspective can be carved out here that can be integrated into academic language without resorting to the more troubling notions of representative frameworks that Agamben himself draws attention to, and also ultimately falls victim to.

The perspective of a pirate as a theoretical perspective – however it may look like in practice – might even help address some of the basic concerns brought forward by the privateering critic; after all, the pirate is privateering-derived. Also, one may add, as a philosophical entity ze is already the potential epitome of both bare life and political life.



Beyond Public and Private

There is an alternative

We are witnessing an ‘assault’ on universities (Bailey and Freedman 2011) and the future of higher education and its institutions is being ‘gambled’ (McGettigan 2013). For years now, we have been warned that our universities are in ‘ruins’ (Readings 1997). We campaign for the ‘public university’ (Holmwood 2011) but in the knowledge that we work for private corporations where the means of knowledge production is being consolidated under the control of an executive. We want the cops off our campus but lack a form of institutional governance that gives academics and students a democratic and constitutional right to the university  (Bhandar 2013).

In 2010, following a policy review into higher education in England (Browne 2010), the newly elected Coalition government increased tuition fees three-fold and removed all public funding from the arts, humanities and the social sciences. This was an intensification of neo-liberal government policies which have been ongoing since the 1980s (Shattock 2012). The policy sparked a wave of protests and student occupations against the increase in fees and the introduction of other austerity measures (Palmieri and Solomon 2011). An important debate at the time among the protestors was that there should be democratic alternatives proposed to capitalist and corporate higher education, rather than simply an attempt to defend the public university: getting beyond the public and private models of higher education as currently constituted (Neary 2012). Current approaches to understanding the changes in UK higher education remain tied to deeply-rooted conceptions of public and private (Neary 2012). Ours is not an argument for or against the privatisation of public higher education but an attempt to go beyond these categories through praxis. This praxis means not only free from financial imperatives but real academic freedom (Wintour 2015).

We suggest there is an alternative: co-operative higher education. The framework for a co-operative model of higher education proposed here offers a challenging perspective to the wide-ranging debates about the future of democratic public higher education that ‘kicked off’ in England in 2010 and around the world (Mason 2011). These debates have re-emerged with renewed intensity during the recent spate of University occupations in the Netherlands and at a number of London University Colleges. We recognise the importance of fighting to maintain free public higher education as well as defending democratic academic values within the current university system, and we want to celebrate the achievements of Rethink UoA and the ‘New University Movement’ as well as the Free Education campaign in England. At the same time we are aware of the continuing dangers of co-option, recuperation and exhaustion as negotiations for institutional reform progress through the complex labyrinth of university committee structures; as well as the ever-present threat of police violence that hangs over any academic and student protest. In this context it is important to continue with experiments in democratic decision-making in ways that constitute a genuine transfer of power from the current university leadership and management to students, academics and other forms of university labour, including cleaners, porters and catering staff.

We argue that while trade unions are a vital element in this process of democratic worker participation, we should be aware of the international co-operative movement as another aspect of working class history and culture from which much can be learned about collective decision-making, along with the institutional and organisational forms within which decision-making as well as other participatory and collective activities take place. Already, outside the university, there are institutional examples of co-operative association that attempt to address issues of ownership and control over the means of production through a radical form of democracy among those involved. Co-operatives are constituted on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, autonomy, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In many cases the assets of the co-operative are held under ‘common ownership’, a social form of property that goes beyond the distinction between private and public.

The possibility of this alternative is bringing together scholars, students, and expert members of the co-operative movement to design a viable model for co-operative higher education. Using our experience of running the Social Science Centre, a co-operative for higher education in the city of Lincoln since 2011, we are interrogating our existing constitution and pedagogic practices to develop a theoretically and practically grounded model of a ‘co-operative university’ that activists, educators and the International Co-operative Alliance could take forward.

The Social Science Centre

The Social Science Centre (SSC) (http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk) organises co-operative higher education in Lincoln, UK and is run by its members. It was conceived in response to the 2010-2015 Coalition government’s changes to higher education funding in the UK; a time when students were occupying their universities in protest against these changes and the model of public higher education in the UK was undergoing rapid marketisation and financialisation that was undemocratic (McGettigan 2013) and imposing a ‘pedagogy of debt’ (Williams 2009).

The SSC was not the only attempt to create a ‘free university’ (Bonnett, 2013), but it is the most sustained and lasting of these efforts. One of the reasons for this is because it was given constitutional form as a democratic member-run organisation that is constitutionally the common property of its current 53 members. Recently, the idea of a ‘co-operative university’ has gained traction among educators and scholars in part drawing inspiration from the SSC, the conversion of state schools to co-operatives (Facer et al., 2012; Woodin 2012) and long-term efforts to teach co-operativism within higher education (Winn 2013).

The SSC can be understood through a conceptual framework of ‘in, against and beyond’ the institutional forms in which it was constituted (Holloway 2002). It was conceived by academics who have been developing a progressive pedagogical framework and model of curriculum development called Student as Producer within the constraints of the capitalist university (http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk). Through this work, we seek to question and reconceive the idea of the university as a social form and work against what it has become (Neary and Winn 2009). We aim to go beyond the conventional paradigms of public and private and constitute in practice a form of higher education grounded in the work of theorists such as Walter Benjamin (1934) and Lev Vygotsky (1997), the social history, values and principles of the international co-operative movement (Yeo 1988), and emerging practices of reciprocity which are constituting a new form of academic commons (Neary and Winn 2012).

Everyday Life at the SSC

Since it was established in 2011, the SSC has run courses in the Social Sciences, broadly conceived, and taught at the level of higher education (Social Science Centre 2013). These courses have been on The Social Science Imagination; The History of the Co-operative Movement; and Know How: Do It Ourselves Higher Education. We offer awards that are equivalent to university degrees, based on our own peer-assessments with no external accreditation. These courses take place in the evening once a week for two hours in premises marked for public use, e.g., community centres, museums, voluntary organisations, cafes and even the pub. The curriculum is decided by the group, with the teaching duties shared by all members, teachers and students, recognising that we all have much to learn from each other. All members of the co-operative are referred to as ‘scholars’ so there is no formal distinction between teachers and students, demonstrating our commitment to the principles of equality and democracy. We have a workshop session each year to decide the taught programmes, which are regularly reviewed and refreshed.

The SSC has arranged sessions on social photography and poetry. We have organised a lecture series on matters to do with ‘The Secret State’, ‘Community Football’ as well as an international conference on Co-operative Learning. This year we had an event where a range of speakers from the co-operative movement spoke about worker co-operatives, how to set up your own local co-operative, and the history of co-operative education in our city.

As well as the educational sessions we have regular planning meetings to deal with the everyday organisation of the co-operative. The students and teachers tend to be members of the SSC so we all have an equal say in the running of the Centre. We pay a lot of attention to making our events accessible to all, including children.  The SSC is a local community project but we would like to find ways of connecting more directly with some of the main issues of local concern and to be able to offer ourselves as a community resource, not only for teaching and learning but also for research.  We worry about the extent to which we are a genuine alternative to mainstream higher education, or a space to imagine what that alternative might look like. Sometimes it feels like we are simply replicating the very model of a university outside of the formal structures of higher education. This is something we talk about a great deal, so it never feels as if the project is ‘finished’ or has realised its full potential. Members of the Centre are committed to the theoretical underpinnings for such a project, but we are also deeply committed to the mundane reality of keeping the SSC alive. The SSC remains experimental in form and an appropriate laboratory for the creation of a co-operative university model.

Student as Producer: Pedagogy and institutional form

Our overall approach assumes that a new social and institutional form of higher education must be based on a pedagogic framework that offers an adequate critique of the capitalist university. Through several years of praxis, we have identified sufficient confluences between our pedagogic approach and the theory and practice of worker and social solidarity co-operatives (Conaty 2014; Winn 2015) to believe that a model of co-operative higher education can be developed that is adequate to meeting the current crises.

Our approach is theoretically grounded in the concept of the Student as Producer (Neary and Winn 2009; Neary 2010). The theoretical basis for Student as Producer is Marx’s labour theory of value (Marx 1976). Student as Producer recognises that both academics and students are involved as academic workers in the production of critical-practical knowledge (Moten and Harney 2004). Student as Producer was conceived inside the University of Lincoln (UK), eventually becoming the teaching and learning strategy for the whole institution. While Student as Producer revealed some of the negative consequences of higher education policy and developed some radical alternatives to ‘academic capitalism’, it is becoming recuperated by the capitalist university and subsumed with the consumerist principles of ‘student engagement’ and ‘student as partners’ (Neary et al. 2015).

Yet Student as Producer was always based on a radical, negative critique of the capitalist university as constituted on the basis of worker exploitation. Originally conceived to operate inside and against the capitalist university, it is now being re-functioned as a pedagogical framework outside of the capitalist university. This re-functioning is based on the values of sharing and commoning, already core academic values, against the exploitative money-based values which characterise the capitalist business. This is achieved not through theoretical novelty, but by connecting theory to an actually existing organisational form: the co-operative university. Student as Producer, as the pedagogical framework of a co-operative university, seeks to reconstitute the ownership of the means of production so that academic workers, including students, own the means of production of the enterprises in which they are working.

Through the specific historical innovations of worker co-operatives and ‘common ownership’, a co-operative model of higher education seems most appropriate to align with a pedagogical framework that recognises academic labour and the academic commons as the organising principle for the production of knowledge. In this way Student as Producer is central to our consideration of a new social form of higher education, having far-reaching social, political and epistemological implications.

The Research Project

The Social Science Centre has recently been funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) to develop a model for co-operative higher education. We have designed an integrated series of workshops inviting academics and students from the social sciences, co-operative business and management, and humanities to work with us. We are also involving historians of the co-operative movement, legal specialists, worker-members of co-operatives, and individuals who have been involved in the free university movement in the UK and elsewhere. We are supplementing these activities with a range of qualitative research methods, including semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and surveys so as to understand how the different models of co-operative organisation might be applied to higher education and the production of knowledge.

Run as a critical participatory action research project (Kemmis 2008) within the SSC, we aim to ensure that all participants feel able to contribute to the design and outcomes of the research. Based on ‘collective deliberation aimed at collective self-understanding’ (ibid 135) of our own co-operative, participants will seek to contribute, through praxis, to the development of a common model for a ‘co-operative university’. As with our pedagogical approach, our overall methodological perspective is informed by a critique of the contradictory relationship between labour and capital and the emancipatory potential inherent in the capital relation. From this viewpoint, labour is understood dialectically as both socially constituted and mediating (Postone 1993) and the methods of our research are understood to be constituted by our immanent social conditions but also prefigurative of the emancipatory potential of our collective work.

The research is taking place over 12 months (May 2015 to April 2016) consisting of a timetable of actions (workshops, focus groups, etc.). The underlying process of action research is co-designed by the research group i.e. members of the Social Science Centre, and co-ordinated through a regular timetable of information meetings, study seminars and research design workshops. The sessions are aimed at creating a ‘safe space’ that builds solidarity within the immediate group and with visiting guests. The researchers produce frequent blog posts on activities and matters as they arise which are published on the SSC website for public comment.

By the end of the research period, we intend to produce a coherent model for a co-operative university, including a proposed pedagogical framework, business plan, model constitutional rules for the co-operative and a proposed model for federation among co-operative universities. Long-term, we envisage that this work will contribute to the growing literature on co-operative higher education (Winn 2013) as well as inform discussions about its development within the co-operative movement and among alternative and free universities worldwide. We believe that it will stimulate discussion and action within Co-operatives UK and within the International Co-operative Alliance.

In 2016, the Social Science Centre will have been running for five years and it is likely that the outcomes of this research will be formally adopted by its members. The reconstitution of the SSC will mark a second stage in its short history, providing a relatively mature example of an alternative form of higher education for educators and students to draw inspiration from and to continue to develop in, against and beyond the ‘pedagogy of debt’ and the ‘ruins’ of the capitalist university.


We invite you to contact us if you wish to contribute to this work.


Demonstrating Academic Worth

As we struggle over the future of academia, merely exposing the truth – that all that is public is melting into air – is not enough. We will have to develop new ways of demonstrating academic worth. Simply showing to the public that universities are being destroyed is not enough. As everyone and anything is fitted into regimes of indebtedness and thereby subject to programs of austerity, calls to protect ‘our university’ appear hopelessly particularistic. If public expenditures must be cut – as they must within the political economy of what Wolfgang Streeck calls the consolidation state (Streeck 2015) – highly privileged sectors of the educational industry can hardly be exempted. It is, I think, a mistake to assume that publics under such a regime will be persuaded by accounts of the destruction of academia that focus on the problems academics are faced with. Most people are not academics, and have no interest in becoming academics. They have meagre means of realising why they ought to care about them. It is however equally mistaken to conclude that academic worth must therefore be conceived and articulated from the position of the non-academic outsiders – as if to imagine oneself in the position of a consuming audience and thus sense what the others might desire from us. Just as outsiders have little sense of why they should care about the destruction of academia, they have also little sense of what would, alternatively, be worthwhile about academic work. Instead of presuming to know what the public wants and catering to such – often very regressive – aims, I propose to think about alternative modes of academic worth from the inside out. I will propose the concept of demonstration as a name for this kind of public value. While the question of demonstration opens a field of issues about ways in which publics can be engaged, I want to pitch my questioning at the level of method and inquiry. If we – academics – ourselves cannot support alternative demonstrations of academic worth at the scale of our own inquiries, we have no business persuading others – taxpayers, students and other publics – of this worth. That is, if we choose not to cynically deceive our clients. So how do we envision academic worth and what alternative might we have?


Between a rock and a hard place

More often than not academic worth is envisioned in two different ways. First, there is the vision of a knowledge economy. Under this rubric, the entire world of academic practice is thought to ‘add value’ to something that is often called ‘the economy’ or, in a more generous sense, ‘society’. However, the vision of a knowledge economy is far more radical than the mere commodification of academic labour. It is not that universities are being transformed into factories that ought to bring its products to market, although that is sometimes part of it. The university, particularly its late 19th and 20th century instantiations, was always located at the cross roads of specific supplies and demands. The factory-market metaphor is too shallow. Universities can be coupled to many fields other than ‘the market’ or ‘the economy’ and nonetheless be turned into ‘knowledge economies’.

What the vision of the knowledge economy proposes is the invention of value metrics that can be attached to anything that moves – workers, papers, patents, departments, schools – and thereby allows players to coordinate their strategies. The neoliberalisation of academia is not the introduction of market discipline from the outside but the proliferation of capitalist controls within academic labouring. Even if academic workers are not forced to ‘increase production’ or ‘valorise’ their work in terms of ‘economic’ output or ‘industrial’ yields, they may nonetheless begin to control themselves, others and their work in relation to generalised metrics of value: citations, awards, recognitions, career opportunities, patents, grants, titles, publications, attention, compliments, notoriety. In Marxist terms, we control ourselves and others through a fetishisation of value.

Now, we may take on a cynical outlook and say that, objectively, fields of knowledge production differentiate and are differentiated through one value and one value alone: the academic capital called ‘Reputation’ (Bourdieu 1988). If such a cynical outlook represents ‘objectivism’, the vision of the knowledge economy is precisely its opposite: subjectivism. We are not asked to recognise the objectivity of academic production, in which case it would still make sense to demonstrate the falsity of such an analysis. Rather, we are asked to perceive academic work as a field of opportunities for acquiring academic esteem. Or, as Richard Rorty aptly put it: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” (1979: 176). The invention of quantified performance indicators are but one deliberate tool in such a pedagogy of entrepreneurialism. The more radical idea behind them is that we approach our practices as so many opportunities to profit from our competitors’ informational lags. We are living in Gary Becker’s wet dreams. Thus, any method of outwitting one’s colleagues is granted as long as one scores points in the fetishized metrics of value, however vaguely defined, and all the better if one doesn’t actually believe in them.[i]

Like all forms of capitalism (Boltanksi and Chiapello 2005), the knowledge economy lacks practical criteria of its own and can only be sustained through the exploitation of that which still resists it. Only as long as my colleagues pretend to actually believe in metrics of value can I get away with outwitting them in whatever it is “added value” demands of us without the illusion of “academic expertise” being unmasked as the mere manipulation of other people’s anticipations. Whether those other people are industry executives, policy-makers, citizens, journalists, victims, venture capitalists, academic managers, stock brokers or my very own colleagues is not all that relevant. Even if the metrics of value refer to measures of value assumed to be internal to science – truth, validity, reliability, replicability, etc. – we are already compelled and compel others to keep up appearances.

Demonstrating worth in the knowledge economy basically means impressing as many people as possible of the idea that what I am doing is impressive or, better yet, will be immensely impressive in the future. The knowledge economy is prone to alternate between booms and busts, between academic celebrity and scandals of foul play. But who cares as long as the wheels keep rolling? The knowledge economy is not capable of demonstrating worth other than through Public Relations.

The second vision of academic worth comes in the form of a representist democracy. Here, academia exists in service of the citizenry. This vision conceives of the university as yet another domain of privilege and authority that is opened up to public accountability and legitimation. It envisions a past of ivory towers and professorial dogmatism in order to project a future of public deliberation and fairness. While it may be highly suspect of the truth-claims made by science, biased as it is towards the concerns of insiders, it also glorifies the academic capacity to settle disputes. It envisions the university as the place where true tests of veracity can be made and scepticism reigns unobstructed. The problem is not authoritative truth claims as such, but academic isolation and scholasticism that distort settlements of disputes. The vision of a representist democracy proposes to redirect the consensus-procedures of academic communities to public disputes. Academics are thus asked to take on some of the work that parliament does in representative democracies: figuring out what can be done about public problems. This means that academics should stop resolving their collegial quarrels – scholastic, theoretical, detached, indulgent – and get to work on public dilemmas. Academics ought to translate ideological cleavages into competing truth-claims and test their truthfulness with the best research available. In this view, academia provides a curious kind of discourse, composed of facts and nothing but facts, which enables citizens to speak truth to power. The entire academic community becomes the citizenry’s army in its on-going battle against false consciousness.

The pinnacle of this assault on idolatry and received wisdom is given by the idea of ‘evidence-based policy’. It is not just that ‘fact free politics’ ought to be combated and that the efficacy of public policy ought to be ascertained. The vision of representist democracy seeks to interlink civic representation to the representativity of causal claims. What is tested in the randomised controlled trials of evidence-based policy evaluation is not merely the causal efficacy of policy measures – if they really work – but the question of whether those measures and their effects can be generalised to the civic population – if they work for all in equal measure. Evidence for causal efficacy is generated precisely by testing whether or not a measure is effective for the citizenry-as-a-whole. In other words, each citizen is given an equal right to governmental efficacy. Facts become more factual insofar as they are, or can become, equally effective for all citizens. Even the most impractical research pursuits are to be justified in view of this civic-popular receptivity. Research is about facts and facts are precisely those truths that can be generalised and applied to all citizens.

The vision of a representist democracy is presentist in a double sense. First, it envisions the citizenry to be a homogenous and well-delineated entity: the population. The citizenry is always already present and identical. Of course, effects appear to contradict each other, they are not the same for everyone as they only take effect in the particular circumstances of each unique person. By inventing stable dimensions of difference – demographics – that count for everyone in equal measure, research may nonetheless represent the undivided citizenry to itself. Non-generalizable differences do not count. Such research designs enables democracy to reach behind the veil of ignorance and represent effects in relation to a citizenry-without-differences, but only by assuming that the citizenry is a finite set with well-defined characteristics. Thus: What is fair is factual and what is factual is fair.

Second, the facts revealed in this way are considered causal mechanisms out there in reality. Contradicting them is useless as they are present nonetheless. This way of speaking the truth depends on a curious bifurcation. On the one hand, there is the order of ‘free opinion’ in which anything can be uttered for whatever reason. Here, contradiction reigns supreme. On the other hand, there is the order of ‘unfree facts’ in which contradiction is futile. Now, of course, in a democracy one cannot be forced to speak the truth. It is entirely up to us to exercise our freedom of speech. In this vision: Either we speak the truth, by submitting our opinions to the laws of nature, or our speech is merely expressive and, thus, nothing more than the fact of being uttered. Either disputes are about factual efficacies, resolvable through validated evidence, or they are themselves facts and their resolution becomes a matter of causally effecting them in the right way. Democratic politics is either the scientific resolution of competing efficacy claims – managerialism – or the effective manipulation of non-truthful discord – managerialism.

Demonstrating worth is a matter of civic servicing. Research is done in the name of the citizenry, at its behest and pleasure. It is a service to the public as each citizen is granted the right to equally effective government. It is also a servicing of the public as each civic utterance is judged to be either a statement of fact or the fact of statement. Research is not so much a public good as it is in the public’s good. This good is mainly sanitary. The house of democracy is cleansed of wasteful contradictions by academic clean-up. The vision is of a representist democracy capable of sanitising the public sphere in which academics appear as little more than experts in effective house-keeping, aids to the managers of the manor.

Neither of the two visions available today – the knowledge economy or the representist democracy – can accommodate an adequate discussion about what it means to demonstrate academic worth. The knowledge economy effectively destroys the bonds that keep academic practitioners together and proposes that we exploit our residual fidelity to metrics of value, whatever they may be for the moment, as a way of keeping the show on the road. The representist democracy provides a rational basis for democratic politics – facts – only by reducing this politics itself to a series of facts called ‘causes’ and ‘opinions’. These visions are, in crucial ways, opposed to each other. While the first decouples science from anything other than what, currently, counts as value, the second fixes science into the role of service provider. What the latter fixes, the former seeks to break free from. What the former exploits, the latter seeks to redistribute. It is not uncommon, however, to encounter both visions in some kind of anxious embrace. It can be proposed, for instance, that it is in the public’s good to construct a knowledge economy, a market-place of ideas, a global competition for the best and the brightest. In short: to strive for the one thing everyone must believe in…Innovation. Conversely, it can be proposed that specifically civic metrics of value are what ought to occupy the strategic agendas of academic entrepreneurs – that public expenditures in academia can only be sustained if ‘social value’ can be demonstrated. Moreover, these two proposals are easily connected into an evocative loop: it is in the public’s good to construct a knowledge economy and this knowledge economy is best expressed in metrics of civic interest. The addition of value is to be evidence-based and well-based evidence is that which adds value. In this way, a presentist belief in the facts-as-they-are, and an entrepreneurial unbelief in value-as-it-is-counted, can be tightly coupled together to compose a new spirit of academic capitalism. What Niels Bohr said of superstition – that it works even if you don’t believe in it – is now true of academic practice itself.


The monstrosity of experimental activism

There are always alternatives. One such alternative is envisioned by what I’d call a monstrous alliance of experimental activism. This is a monstrous alliance because experimentalists and activists are, in many ways, at odds with each other. I have in mind here two tendencies in counter-hegemonic practices that seek to contest the new spirit of academic capitalism in two different ways. These two tendencies – experimentalism and activism – can be defined by explicating their mutual discordances.

To the frustration of activists, the experimentalists maintain that there is always hope, always new ways of doing things, always possibilities for tinkering with the existing order. Experimentalists think the solution is change, the making of new relations. To the fatigue of experimentalists, the activists hold that there is no time to waste, actions needs to be taken sooner not later, and an unreserved partiality to the dominated, the outsiders, the subaltern, the downtrodden and stigmatised is to be promoted and sustained. Activists think change is the solution, the dissolution of old structures. While experimentalists believe in action, they do not believe in any priority of ‘the cause’. And while activists believe in creativity, they do not believe in moderation. Activists tend to renounce experimentalism as ‘liberal’. Experimentalists tend to placate activism as ‘unproductive’. Yet, there is also an alliance in the making.

What brings both tendencies together, I want to argue, is a vision of academia in which research – instead of any truth-procedure as such – is life. Both already accept what ethnomethodology proclaims: that we ought to do methodical research into methods. Research is taken to be a specific folding back of life’s methods onto its procession. Life acts methodically and it is this aspect of living – how things are done – that academics seek to attend to and, in a sense, demonstrate. Both activists and experimentalists share a reflexive vision of method as they take it to be inextricably entangled with, what Stengers calls, an ecology of practices (2010). Thus, their common enemy is a positivist/presentist position that seeks to uncouple inquiry from its ecology by way of methodological terror – ‘The’ scientific method – or epistemological common sense – black boxes of all kinds. Experimentalists and activists advocate entanglement to be the very reason for doing academic work and cannot help but take inquiry itself to be a reason to be alive. Science is a calling, a biography more than a career. What would it mean to demonstrate worth if it entails the methodical inquiry into the methods of being alive?

My argument hinges on the term ‘demonstration’. It carries into the discussion a useful bundle of associations: acting, protesting, performing, proving, teaching, showing, testing, even impressing and, above all, wondering. Demonstration seems to be a practice that can move between all these registers. We may demonstrate worth in all of these senses and, crucially, none of them can be principally rejected. All of them count in experimental activism. What matters then is doing research and thereby demonstrating ways of living. This is where both the knowledge economy and the representist democracy falter. Both seek to marry the demonstrative efforts of academic practice to concerns that annul life into value-for-the-time-being or facts-without-responsibility. In contrast, demonstration is not the publication of the impressive or the presentation of the indisputable. Experimental activism is the always partial interruption of what is already the case by which the enduring actuality of non-necessity is demonstrated:

To demonstrate how acids do when we work with them this way; to demonstrate how political grievances do when you work with them that way; to demonstrate how archives do when we work with them another way; to constantly propose linkages and translations between the lab and the clinic, the argumentation and the debate, the test and the implement, academic imagination and public truth. In short, to demonstrate that common worlds can unfold from the merely apparent solipsism and very real loneliness of creative expertise and inquisitive dedication.

In an ecology of practices, academia and the work that goes on there become sites of hesitation, unfolding, recombination and monstrosities. Where the knowledge economy asks us, although not politely, to govern our inquisitive enterprises and the representist democracy offers us the role of service-providers, I want to imagine the university as a place where matters-at-hand acquire – always partial – non-necessity. If academic capitalism is the anxious necessity of lock-step relations in the ecology of practices, steered through values-anticipated or legitimated by causalities-proven, then academic worth revolves around the subversion of such idle necessity by methodically demonstrating how life does when we are doing it.

The university that not only harbours but would actually give experimental activists a home is a transgressive place, a utopia, as the very reason to do research is to constantly transgress the boundary between “academic” and “non-academic” practices, to break out of the home. The question of what this new university looks like can thus not be answered from the outside by way of a governance model, as if “democratisation” can be supplanted onto academia. Sure, we might choose to tolerate one or another of such “democratic” models when it is offered to us. The hard work of negotiating over such models is certainly not irrelevant. Yet, we should also work from the inside out and take seriously the responses this provokes from the people that are paid to rule us and allow us to work. To pretend to build – once and for all – the transgressive university that we think we want, is – I think – non-sense. The matter-at-hand is demonstration. We should demonstrate, from the inside out, how a methodological research into methods adds to our capacities to live in a greater variety of ways. We thereby always already remain at a distance from the value-metrics and self-evidences in any of the governance models that are offered to us.

Technical Universities Beyond Marketization


In academia and in the public media, a discussion is raging about the aims, the style of management and the ideological background of the university. This debate has spread to several countries, notably countries in which neoliberal models of governance are enforced in systems of higher education[1].  As a result, several student protests have been initiated, as for example the protests in Amsterdam during which university buildings were occupied. Generally, these protests are initiated at classical universities, while engineering students at technical universities don’t seem too eager to go protesting. As an oft-mentioned illustration of the assumed disconnected attitude of engineering students, it is recalled that students of Caltech protested during the student protests of 1968 that revolved around military service and the Vietnam War; but for quite a different reason: the cancellation of the TV series Star Trek. The dealings of the engineering sciences are said to be a long way off from political and societal concerns and engineers seem to occasionally embrace this idea.

However, there are good reasons to believe that even the Star Trek protests of ‘68 arose out of an ideological context (Keyser 2015). Even more pressing reasons can be found for arguing that the current debate that revolves around the ‘marketization’ of the universities and the consequences of this trend for academic education is relevant for technical universities. It would be foolish to think that students of engineering sciences cannot or should not be involved in such political matters that concern the way their education is organised. As a contribution to the debate, I will focus on the specific status of marketization in the engineering sciences at technical universities, taking the Dutch technical universities as illustrative examples. In the argument, I will aim at countering the marketization paradigm at technical universities by juxtaposing the ‘tuned’ engineer with the idea of bildung of the virtuous engineer.

The marketization of technical universities

What is meant by the marketization of the technical university? To answer this question, I firstly need to address the origins of the engineering sciences, which are very different from the origins of sciences at the classical universities. Initially, the education of engineers emerged from two background conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries: a development from ‘the shop to the school’ (Lintsen 1993: 12) and developments in state building (Lintsen 1993: 23). The education of engineers moved from professional training (apprenticeship) in artisan shops to formal education that laid down the requirements for being an engineer. Moreover, the first instances of formal education for engineers were directly organized by the state, which trained engineers to be specialized in building military fortifications. Hence, engineering sciences have developed out of a context of professionalization and state interest, which culminated in the so-called ‘polytechnic schools’ (Reynolds 1992: 462).

Nonetheless, the engineering sciences have been transformed and put on an equal footing with the natural sciences and humanities. In the Netherlands, the academic status of the engineering sciences was fully recognized in 1986 when the three institutes for the engineering sciences in Delft, Eindhoven and Enschede were officially titled ‘technical universities’, and therefore elevated from the level of polytechnic school to university. Still, the technical universities are tightly connected to the professional sector. In the Netherlands, they are far ahead of the classical universities in terms of ‘market valorisation’, indicating their success in deploying commercial activities out of their research (Leeuwen & Marc 2013). While acknowledging the differences in background conditions between technical universities and classical universities, I want to assess what has been the alleged impact of neoliberal governance and ‘marketization’ for the technical universities.

Henceforth, I will discuss the general problematization of marketization in universities. I distinguish three distinct aspects of the process of marketization, most of which originated from the rise of neoliberal ideas of governance initiated in the 1980s: the emergence of the knowledge economy, the rise of new public management, and the transformation of curricula. The first aspect, the emergence of the knowledge economy, refers to an increased interaction between businesses and universities in knowledge production at the backdrop of ideas about ‘knowledge capitalism’ (Peters 2013: 13). Knowledge is increasingly seen as a commodity that can be subjected to market forces in order to be made profitable. As such, the idea of the knowledge economy has led to the idea of economic knowledge, both in terms of academic results and of global competition (Levidow 2002: 2-3). Academic results are expected to be quantifiable and capable of being subjected to performance indicators. Global competition between universities, fuelled by the increasing importance of university and scholar rankings, revolves around attracting the most competent and productive students and researchers.

The second aspect of the process of marketization of universities is the rise of ‘new public management’. This type of management indicates an application of business management models on government or semi-government institutions. For the academic world, this involves a shift of the justification of the function of a university, moving from a ‘culture of open intellectual enquiry and debate’ to one with ‘an institutional stress on performativity’ (strategic planning, performance indicators, academic audits) (Olssen & Peters 2005: 313). As a consequence, a class of academic managers became part of the university organization, consisting of people responsible for the management, measurement and audit of academic output.

The third aspect of the marketization process entails a transformation of academic education, both structurally and content-wise. Structurally, education became organized in such a way that its outcomes can be better monetized, measured and audited. Although separate segments of a university’s organization remain responsible for the organization and financing of the curricula, the norms for their performance are strictly regulated by means of output-related criteria. Content-wise, individuals are increasingly assessed on their ‘skills’, which implies that curricula are deemed valuable only insofar as they deliver measurable skills that are explicitly separated from knowledge and understanding (Curren 2003: 564). Skills relate to pragmatic goals that are context-dependent as juxtaposed to the universality that is implied in the knowledge and understanding aimed at by universities. The impacts that these structural and content-wise changes have are best captured by the concept of ‘tuning’, with the aim of ‘producing graduates with relevant skills and dispositions to meet the demands of industry’ (Chan 2014: 15).

Opposing the ‘tuned’ engineer

Now that I have identified the three main aspects of the marketization of universities in general, I will assess to what extent these aspects can be called problematic for technical universities. First of all, strong traces of the above-mentioned aspects of marketization can be observed in the strategic plans of the three Dutch technical universities. Amongst the principal long-term objectives we find: the attraction of leading academic talents, creating business locations (TU Delft 2010), strengthening disciplinary excellence, securing fixed investment goals (TU/e 2011), taking societal and economic impacts as criteria for performance-indication and promoting valorisation activities (Universiteit Twente 2014). Hence, I tentatively argue that the marketization trends influencing the management of universities in general impact the management of technical universities as well; perhaps even more vividly.

As I discussed before, technical universities share a history and a societal embeddedness that differ from those of classical universities. The academic tradition on which classical universities are grounded, which can be traced to the scholastic age, revolves around a universalist idea of knowledge; as knowledge for truth’s sake (Brody 2009: 8). Moreover, the classical concept of the university as it developed during the enlightenment was based according to Humboldt on the ‘unity of research and teaching’, without any necessary connection to the realm of praxis (Scharmer & Kaufer 2000). Though these original values of classical universities have certainly been put under pressure, they nonetheless are part of their history and position in society. Technical universities, on the contrary, are originally grounded in the interests of states and professions. As such, one could argue that a focus on interaction with businesses and state interests is more closely related to the idea of a technical university. Perhaps for this reason, technical universities in the Netherlands have generally spearheaded initiatives focused on valorisation of their knowledge: with as a striking example the focus of the University of Twente on creating an ‘entrepreneurial university’ as early as in 1987 (Kan 2011), when the first contours of neoliberal university management appeared.

Still, we need to critically assess the impact of marketization trends at technical universities. For the aspect of the emergence of the knowledge economy and economic knowledge, this seems to be a question of finding a right balance. Technical universities are originally involved in the application of the knowledge they produce, both in terms of human capital and academic output. However, a danger persists in excessively vesting economic interest in universities through a principle that Max Weber coined technical reason (Peters 2013: 12). Technical reason refers to the emergence of a paradigm in thinking as a result of the economization of knowledge. Because knowledge is increasingly translated into practice, applied to the human life world, a form of what Morozov designates as solutionism (Morozov 2013) arises. This translates into an ideology of seeing technological knowledge and its application as a form of domination over both nature and men (Hamilton 1991: 135). A dominance of such a way of thinking at universities can abstract from the human aspect of technologies: from the societal embeddedness of applications of technical knowledge. The second aspect of marketization of universities, the application of new management practices, strongly relates to the first. A certain set of managerial criteria that map the impact of the work of technical universities can be very beneficial, but an excessive use of such criteria can lead to what scholars of the Frankfurt School designated as the danger of administrative reason (Peters 2013: 12): an over-monitoring of processes leading to the loss of academic freedom and the imposition of substantial bureaucratic burdens.

I argue that the third aspect of the marketization of universities, the transformation of engineering education, is the most problematic aspect at technical universities. The focus on ‘tuning’ of the ‘skills’ of an engineer implies an application of the principles of technical and administrative reason on the person that is educated in the engineering sciences. That is, universities increasingly treat their students as an output-variable that needs to be adjusted, ‘tuned’, to the needs of administrative criteria and the paradigm of the knowledge economy. This leads to several problematic tendencies. First of all, a sole focus on skills empties curricula of their substance: it makes them fully dependent on pragmatic end-points that are themselves not part of the knowledge and understanding of the engineering sciences (Curren 2003: 565). Secondly, the ‘tuning’ of engineers directly impacts the societal, educational and personal expectations that are connected to the curricula. Engineers are expected to excel in their discipline in a way that makes them meet the demands of domain-specific professions. For example, a good mechanical engineer is deemed a good engineer inasmuch as his skills make him fit for serving the needs of the industry demanding mechanical engineers. This has moved the focus of educating a ‘whole’ engineer, expressing a holistic idea of an engineer who actively needs to embed his knowledge in society (Ruprecht 1999), to an engineer who is economized and made into a fragment of a designated process in the knowledge economy. Put bluntly, an engineer is not expected to oversee the impacts of his work in a broader societal setting, but rather to comply with administrative and technical rules by correctly ticking the boxes of the ethical requirements he is confronted with. Furthermore, neglecting the holistic idea of what it means to be an engineer in an educational setting causes failure in living up to the explicit goal of marketization at universities: namely, to produce, as the specific jargon frames it, proper engineers. Next to fragmented skills of problem solving, the skills required to identify challenges and societal contexts from which these problems arise are just as important.

Taken together, I argue that the marketization at technical universities has led to a focus on the ‘tuned’ engineer, which has led to the failure of considering the holistic idea of an engineer as someone who not only solves problems but also identifies and justifies them out of a sense of societal embeddedness. In order to address this challenge, we need to try to answer the question: what does it mean to be a good engineer? In order to do so, I will invoke the idea of ‘Bildung’, framed in opposition to the marketization of engineers.

‘Bildung’ of the virtuous engineer

I argue that in order to counter the problematic tendencies of marketization at technical universities, ideas of what it means to be a good, or rather ‘virtuous’ engineer need to be brought to the table. As such, it is not the skills of a person (end-points that fit within the marketization paradigm) but the person herself – her character – that ought to be the aim of education at technical universities. The idea of a cultivation of ‘character’ is not to be confused with cultivating a psychological disposition of an individual, but refers instead to cultivating a character as in a narrative, as someone endowed with ethical qualities operating in a cultural setting[2]. A vested idea that is grounded on the cultivation of the individual is captured by the originally German idea of ‘bildung’. Bildung strongly connotes with the German word bauen (to construct) (Voskuhl 2014) and as such can be interpreted as the construction of the self, the cultivation of a person. At the same time, it originates from the word bild (image), denoting the designing of a holistic image of the self (Schneider 2012: 303). I argue that since especially engineers are involved with the art of construction and design, the construction and design of our artificial world, the idea of bildung is a relevant starting-point for reflection.

Bildung plays a prominent role in the ideas about education of the German philosopher and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt who had a strong influence on the formation of the German education system. He framed bildung as the ability to be able to understand one’s own fragmented field of action, one’s own narrow worldview shaped by a discipline (mathematics, physics, philosophy) in the context of a ‘higher perspective’, a general humanist overview and understanding (Humboldt 1986: 1). This amplifies the need for reflection upon one’s own standpoint in order to be able to transcend it and to see one’s work in a broader historical, cultural and societal setting. Originally, bildung referred to the autonomous construction of the self, but in the course of the 18th century it gained the meaning of forming another person’s self (through education) (Schneider 2012: 304). Schneider explains that the educational process of bildung as a moral development occurs in the course of a person’s life. From the impulsive self of one’s childhood, a person constructs herself according to stages in which she organises her thinking, devotes her thoughts to the goals of a community, identifies these goals with an ideology and finally distances herself from this ideology (Schneider 2012: 306). In the context of our earlier discussion, this could entail a formative process in which engineers identify the goals of their thinking with a solutionist ideology, enabling them to reflect upon this ideology by distancing themselves from it.

Unfortunately, bildung is a widely diverse concept with manifold meanings attached to it (Horlacher 2004: 424). In order to make better sense of the concept of bildung, I interpret it in line with the recently revived tradition of virtue ethics (a tradition that has largely been based on Aristotelian ethics). Virtue ethics diverges from the ethical systems that originate from the enlightenment, utilitarian and deontological ethics, by grounding ethics in the moral agent rather than in the application of certain universal principles (Silva 2011: 142). Virtue ethics revolves around the reliability of a moral agent: the reliability of an agent to act according to certain conditions of a virtue in a given situation. In other words, virtue ethics deals with how to act instead of what to do. One of the strong criticisms of virtue ethics is aimed at its communitarian character: the liberal critique of the idea that the meaning of virtues is constituted by society. The concept of bildung, as a free and autonomous process of reflection that belongs to the individual serves to overcome this critique (Silva 2011: 154). According to the idea of bildung in a context of virtue ethics, education should be aimed at promoting individual self-reflection in the context of a historical, cultural and societal understanding. In order for an engineer to distance herself from the ideology that grounds the goals of her work, her education should enable reflection upon these goals and embed this reflection in the context of the idea of how she can be a virtuous engineer. For example, when a computer scientist is working on a specific problem in her discipline, say cyber security, she will first be confronted with the historical and normative grounding of this problem (why is it a problem, due to which circumstances, in order to attain which goal, and why?). Consequently, she will contextualize this holistic view (this ‘bild’) in accordance with what it means for her to be a virtuous computer scientist. For instance, she can develop an idea of herself as an engineer who works on the development of cyber security while respecting the privacy of the users of the technology and contributing to a friendly and just interaction between people in cyberspace. Through the process of bildung, she can juxtapose her idea of a virtuous engineer with the goals set out in her specific field of study. Though this educational outlook can be fruitful for both classical and technical universities, it is particularly relevant for technical universities because engineering students focus on very specific, designated problems and because they regularly work with actual applications of their work that can have direct historical, ethical and political consequences.

How does the education of a virtuous engineer differ from the education of a tuned engineer? This difference can be established by considering the differences with the goals of the ‘skills’ that are central to the tuned engineer. Current management strategies of technical universities mention ‘packages of skills’ that make engineers ‘suitable for employment’ (TU Delft 2010), offering ‘management’, ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘team-work’ and ‘communication’ skills (TU/e 2011). These skills all relate to certain end-points that arguably can be very beneficial for the ways engineers operate, but barely relate to any aspect of bildung. None of these skills involves an aspect of reflection, of relating to one’s discipline from a more general perspective. Rather, they refer to proper functioning within a fragmented domain (even, paradoxically, skills like ‘team-work’ that focus on working with peers rather than reflecting on this work). Conversely, the virtuous engineer engages with a model of education that is embedded in a culture of reflection. This does not imply the reflection that is often required in study programs in the sense of ‘reflecting on one’s work’, but rather in the sense of reflecting on one’s discipline from a holistic perspective. Next to training in problem solving, engineers ought to be trained in the identification of problems (why is this engineering problem a problem at all from a societal perspective?). The ‘whole’ engineer should not just be expected to be excellently ‘tuned’ towards her future position (this includes team-building and communication skills) but rather to be capable of critically situating her position in society as a whole. This is also a point where an interaction between the engineering sciences, natural sciences and the humanities can occur (Ben-Haim 2000), for each has a stake in the ‘bildung’ of the virtuous scientist – be it an engineer or a philosopher. Such an interaction does not entail engineers having to engage in a form of liberal arts education, but rather that moments of reflection are built into the fabric of the educational program. For example, an engineering student in the discipline of mechanical engineering would be challenged to reflect upon her work by being confronted with the historical development of her discipline and the ethical and political consequences of the technologies she develops. Already, courses of ethics are included in educational programs of technical universities in the Netherlands. However, these courses are still separated from the field-specific courses in the discipline. A more suitable educational design would be one in which the ethical, historical and political aspects of technologies are integral parts of the domain-specific courses. In line with this idea, students could be expected to include these reflections in their work (e.g. as part of their bachelor or master theses).

Conclusion & Discussion

In this paper, I argue that marketization trends affecting universities in general are strongly present in the management and education of technical universities. Partly, this is due to the historical background of the technical university as such, but marketization can nonetheless negatively affect the purpose of technical universities, which I argue should be to educate virtuous engineers. Marketization trends tend to promote technical and administrative reason and culminate in the idea of an engineer that is ‘tuned’ to her future position. As an alternative to the tuned engineer, I discuss the idea of ‘bildung’ of the virtuous engineer, whose education includes a strong reflexive component. Thiscomponent, I argue, should enable engineers to distance themselves from their disciplines and reflect on their discipline-specific goals by juxtaposing them with their perception of what it means to be a virtuous engineer (how one envisions one’s role as engineer in society). Instead of exclusively focusing on sets of skills that are preferred due to societal and business constraints, universities should also encourage students to reflect on their discipline as a whole; not only from a technical, but also from a historical, ethical and political perspective.

However, a merely educational reform at technical universities would be insufficient to achieve this change, for the marketization pressures are present in the research and management structures as well. The purpose of a reform of these structures would be, in line with the bildung principle of educating the virtuous engineer, to enable the university as an institution to engage in critical reflection with regard to its own goals and to contextualise this reflection in terms of what it means to be, so-to-say, a virtuous technical university. I argue that this can be done according to three main reforms. First, the management of universities should be de-fragmentised. Currently, the technical universities especially have faculties and departments that enjoy strict financial and managerial autonomy. Such a separation supports the ‘tuning’ of goals for departments to be most competitive in a societal setting conditioned by marketization trends (to gain the most funding, to ‘tune’ research according to the need of businesses) and to pursue their goals separately. Breaking down the barriers between departments enables more solidarity within the university’s organisation, results in a softening of marketization goals, and makes it easier for researchers from different fields to be embedded in disciplines foreign to their own (e.g. a historian or ethicist working in a computer science department). Secondly, technical universities should adapt more democratic structures to allow for critical self-reflection. When the entire organisation is involved in setting the goals of the university, the opportunities for reflection are enhanced and managerial decisions can be adjusted to the agreed-upon perception of a virtuous technical university. Thirdly, at the societal level, limits to the involvement of business and government interests in setting the goals of technical universities should be deliberated and implemented. In line with our earlier discussion, I argue that we need to balance the gains from marketization against the over-excessive presence of processes of technical and administrative reason that obstruct the possibility for free reflection implied in the idea of bildung.


The ADAPT Centre for Digital Content Technology is funded under the SFI Research Centres Programme (Grant 13/RC/2106) and is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund. 


A ‘Circulation Model’ of Education


The protests at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA) that began in November 2014 as a reaction to severe cuts[1] in the department of humanities have sparked a broad debate nationally and even internationally about the future of the university and the values and ideals that should define it. It turned out that dissatisfaction was much more widespread in different parts of the university than some had previously thought, and many turned out to share the concerns first put forward in the humanities department, to extend beyond the borders of the university and the country. Increasing focus on getting as many students as possible to graduate promptly has shifted the attention ever more towards quantitative indicators for the evaluation of education rather than qualitative ones, leading to raising the question of whether the quality of education has suffered from these priorities. The executive board of the UvA initially tried to ignore the criticisms and demands put forward by the protesters, but eventually recognized that this strategy was untenable and came forward with a substantial response to the protests: the board presented ‘ten points’ that would guide its discussion of the future direction of the university. Although in general everyone was happy with these points as they contained suggestions in response to important demands of the protesters such as the demand for increased democratisation, a broadly-shared criticism of the ten points was that they were very vague and imprecise and required specification if they were to be implemented. We would like to take the occasion of this special issue of Krisis on the future of the university to take up two of these ten points and discuss in this essay how they could be further elaborated and implemented in student education in the new university, explaining why this is not yet the case.

The two points on which we would like to focus are closely related and connected. Point 6 reads: ‘Priority to creativity and innovation in education and research’ and Point 7: ‘Link education with, and value it as highly as, research’.[2] Here we have one point emphasizing creativity and innovation in education and research, and one point that stresses the connection between the two. A first reaction might be: isn’t that just what the university should be about anyway? In what sense is this a new direction? Is it new at all or does it merely indicate that the traditional values of the university have been pushed too much to the background? We would like to suggest that all these responses are partly true at least. The fact that these two points are part of a plan to direct the future indicates that these points may have suffered under choices made in university governance in the past couple of years. We would like to stress, though, that the current situation is also a good occasion to reconsider the values of higher (academic) education and explore possibilities to implement these in the new university. We will do this by briefly considering the history of the university as an institute that aims to combine – more or less effectively – research and education, subsequently mentioning some more recent challenges for the university, and we will finish our essay with a brief description of a ‘circulation model of education’ that we consider to be a fruitful source for answering some of the challenges we identified from the current discussions.

A brief history of different educational models: from oral disputations via writing exercises to standardized education

The university is often said to be the internationally most successful European social invention: other than many other inventions and institutions, the university has been adopted by most countries as an institution that combines research and education (cf. Lindberg 1992). Where previous interactions between scholars – ‘masters’ – and pupils were mostly organized at a relatively small scale in monasteries, cathedral schools or at private courts, from the 11th century a rapid change occurred.  Increasing wealth, population growth and urbanization provided some of the material conditions for this, while the Renaissance and other cultural changes prepared the intellectual ground. Initially the ‘universitas’ referred to an independent association or guild of teachers and their students, without reference to a particular location or building. When these associations grew, the need for an organization and buildings increased as well. In 1088 freedom of teaching was granted to Bologna’s school, which is considered by many to be the birth-date of the university.[3] Papal involvement with the early universities and the recognition by the popes from the 13th century onwards of the universal validity of university degrees facilitated the further institutionalization of universities and the increasingly important status of university degrees as indicators of scholarly and professional qualification (Rüegg 2003b). When this new institution spread more and more through Europe, increasing numbers of individuals who participated in university training entered the ranks of the clergy, merchants, civil servants, medical doctors, lawyers, and so on.[4] With this development, the direct and indirect impact of the university on the larger society grew as well, affected as it was by the students and their skills and expertise as these returned to societal positions after their stay at the university. Of particular interest to us in the present context is the changes that obtained regarding the educational models to be found in these institutions. These educational models affect the interactions between teachers and students and the role and nature of research with regard to education. Moreover, as we will argue, each model is associated with a specific perspective on students as independent learners and researchers.

Medieval and early-modern university training consisted largely of oral exchanges, with the oral disputation being the most important form of assessment. This prominence of the oral nature of academic education and exchange was partly due to the limited distribution of written and printed materials and, consequently, their limited relevance. With the wider availability and distribution of printed publication of scientific results and the emergence of scientific journals, reading and writing largely came to replace the oral disputation – a process that began around 1750 at German universities and from there gradually spreading to other countries. Specific regulations were given as to how seminar writing exercises should be handled, because they were considered to be important as demonstrations of students’ capacity to master original sources and to use these for their own independent research. Indeed, this rise in the prominence of writing reflected the university’s recent emphasis on a student’s individual development for becoming a creative and independent researcher (Kruse 2006). Motivating, supervising, commenting and assessing writing was considered to be the best way in guiding the student along this difficult path, initiating her in the practice and discourse of a particular discipline. This form of ‘student socialization’ (Kruse 2006) has been in place for nearly two centuries until a further development made it nearly impossible to maintain it.

The development at stake is of course the more recent massification of higher education. After the Second World War, and particularly since the 1970s, the number of students has increased exponentially in many countries. In the last decade alone, a rise of 45% of tertiary educated young adults in the OECD and G20 countries has been observed (OECD 2015). This development took place during an economically challenging period, which has motivated European educational policies – more so than in the US – to emphasize higher education as preparation of students for the job market, rather than as preparation to become fully developed citizens (Keestra 2007; Wildemeersch 2013). These socio-economic changes went along with an ideological – neo-liberal – turn regarding higher education, together impacting the conditions of the latter in a negative way: ‘[i]n short, massification, the economic crisis, and a widespread acceptance of the private-good argument have led to a worldwide deterioration in conditions as exemplified by deteriorating student/ teacher ratios, problems for the academic profession, and the general impoverishment of academe’ (Altbach, Reisberg, & Rumbley 2010: 36).[5]

These developments have had a big impact on the education universities offer to their students and in particular on the amount of attention and supervision that each individual student can receive from professors. This is ironic, since for several decades so-called constructivist theories of learning have become more widely recognized, implying that students should not be treated as passive learners but instead must be actively engaged with teaching materials: teachers were facing demands to reconsider their role accordingly – ‘from sage on the stage to guide on the side’ (King 1993).[6] Although this has contributed to the development of valuable pedagogical innovations, their implementation is constrained by the other trends mentioned here. This situation has resulted in a largely unchanged – if not increasing – focus on lectures as the main vehicle for transmission of teachers’ insights and expertise to students, given that they can accommodate as many students as required without, in principle, any limits. In this context, programs and teachers have sought refuge in standardised methods of examination – instead of placing the earlier emphasis on creativity in disputation and writing – with standard questions for all students and often with standard answers for them to choose from (multiple-choice exams).[7]

Two current challenges of university education

From this brief discussion of the history of university education we surmise that there have been at least three different media of teaching students at the university: a first phase in which verbal disputations occupied a central spot; a second phase in which reading and writing exercises were the main elements of training used at the university; and a third and current phase which seems to be focussed further still on elements such as listening, reading, making exercises and standardized exams, notwithstanding pedagogical and other reasons that point in a contrary direction.

In this model of teaching the role of the teacher is not so much to facilitate the development of students as independent and creative scientists by engaging with their independent thinking through verbal interactions, and by guiding and providing feedback on their writing. Instead, university education in this model consists largely of making students reach certain standardized learning objectives according to predefined pedagogical and scientific methods and processes, preordained by experts whose knowledge and skills students should learn to emulate. In his much debated book The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991), French philosopher Jacques Rancière has argued that there are a number of negative consequences to this approach to education. First of all it makes explanation the primary mode of engagement of teachers with their students and makes understanding its central goal. As a result, students are put in a relatively passive position. The presumption is that students are not yet capable of understanding a certain piece of information deemed important by the teacher, and that the relatively straightforward goal towards achieving comprehension is by way of the teacher explaining it to them. As Rancière points out, this undermines the confidence of students in their own intelligence and capacity and in fact creates a situation of continued ‘enforced stultification’ in which a separation continues to exist between the superior ‘intelligence’ of the teacher and the inferior intelligence of the students (Rancière 1991: 7 ff.). He contends that even sophisticated pedagogies can still not avoid this separation and that ‘all the perfecting of the ways of making understood, that great preoccupation of men of methods and progressives, is progress toward stultification’ (Rancière 1991: 8, italics in original).[8]

It should be rather obvious that such ‘enforced stultification’ is the opposite of what education should in fact achieve. There is however another, more subtle, effect of this predetermined and standardized model of education – for which the traditional lecture is exemplary but not unique – that should also be considered, because it is at least as important. Besides creating a distinction between the intelligence and understanding of the student and the teacher, it also creates a distinction between what the student does as against what the teacher does. Whereas the teacher himself, as a researcher, gets to engage directly with his subject matter in his research, the student is deemed unfit for this task. Indeed, Rancière emphasizes that education usually forces students to attend to subjects and contents that have been chosen by their teachers.[9] As the understanding of the student is only mediated by the necessary explanation by the teacher, the latter is directing and constraining the student’s attention. Accordingly, the creativity of the individual student is not called into action, either for understanding the material presented to her or for any research or direct engagement with primary material. Thus, the traditional model (and many other models) of education not only undermines the confidence of students in their own intelligence, it also discourages the use of their own creativity. Indeed, creativity in research is considered to be the privilege of the teacher, which the student may reach only at a late phase – perhaps the master’s phase – of her studies, if at all.

It might be surprising to apply this – admittedly somewhat provocative – analysis to the current situation of university education, given that most universities, including the UvA, still contend that their programs and courses are built upon a connection between research and education. However, this connection can be variously implemented and correspondingly offers students more or less exposure to a genuine research experience. Realizing this connection, any program or course must position itself along the following three dimensions:

– the emphasis is on research content or research processes;
– the students are treated as the audience or participants;

– the teaching is teacher-focused or student-focused. (Healey 2005: 187)

It is not surprising that, with increasing numbers of students, universities construe most of their programmes and courses in such a way that students are given only limited experience with a research process as participants with their teachers focusing on such student work.

This is not only hampering student development, it is the more worrying as scientific research and education has undergone another development in the last century, particularly in the last decades. We are referring to the growing importance and prominence of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teaching and research, already recognized nearly half a century ago by an international symposium at the OECD headquarters, presenting a crucial challenge to the modern university’s structure and activities (Apostel, Berger, Briggs, & Machaud 1972). Several drivers have been recognized behind this development, ranging from the inherent complexity of society and nature to new problems emerging from particular technologies – such as the computer or MRI-scanner (National Academies of Sciences 2004). By their very nature, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research try not to abstract from, but rather focus on, the local, historical and contextual conditions that have an impact on a particular problem. As a result, the applicability of the general or nomothetic knowledge developed in separate disciplines is highly constrained in such cases in which causal and theoretical pluralism reigns in often unprecedented ways (Krohn 2010). This means that to engage in inter- and transdisciplinary research students need to be able to creatively combine different frameworks, methods and sources in order to address the questions and problems at hand. Given the increasing importance and relevance of such research, both inside and outside academia, it is all the more worrying that the education model that has become more and more dominant is not delivering students the expertise and skills necessary to become proficient in it and to perform adequately in future jobs both inside and outside academia.

We thus identify two challenges for education at the new university: on the one hand the increasing numbers of students that universities have to accommodate with decreasing budgets, and at the same time an increasing need for universities to develop the creative skills of their students in order to engage in the modern forms of – oftentimes interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary – research that have become important for academia and society. Whereas universities have responded to the first challenge by relying on predetermined and standardized programs as their educational model, the second challenge cannot be met adequately by such a model. In fact, this model has a lot of undesirable consequences for the students, some even contrary to what education should in fact achieve.[10] Therefore we would like to take this opportunity to investigate what might be an alternative model of education which would be more adequate and that incorporates the two points regarding creativity and innovation, and regarding the connection between research and education mentioned above.

The circulation model of education

As we have seen from our brief history and our brief discussion of Rancière’s analysis of the predetermined and standardized model, the students’ confidence in their own intelligence and creativity is not strengthened and a separation between education and research has occurred, increasingly barring students from engaging in research. The current discussion about what education at the new university should look like therefore seems to ask for acknowledgment of the limited value of this model and an emphasis on another more recent model of education in which research and education are connected creatively. This type of education does exist, yet unfortunately due to economic conditions mostly in a very limited sense at smaller programs or colleges and for a selected group of students. We would like to sketch a few of the aspects of a Weberian ideal type of what we call a ‘circulation model’ of education, because within it circulation rather than unidirectional traffic occurs between different elements: circulation between research and education, between insights of teachers and of students, between disciplines, between general and contextualized knowledge, between disciplinary and experiential knowledge, between doing research and (meta-)reflection upon research, and so on. Let us explain.

In a course that complies with the relevant features of the circulation model of education, students are – preferably in a team project – allowed to determine themselves a complex, real-world research problem, for which they need to articulate and analyze relevant conditions. As these conditions probably transcend their own disciplinary backgrounds – and probably the expertise of their teacher(s), too – their teacher should assist them in this difficult process. Assistance here can imply that she has to guide them in acquiring the necessary insights for determining their problem or re-defining it in such a way that they can handle it. Such an acquisition will in many cases imply that the students need to talk to other experts or stakeholders and then to consider how the insights that result from this can be combined with their preliminary insights. The teacher might need to help students to target and collect these different kinds of insights and then to circulate these with the already existing knowledge-base in a constructive way. Moreover, as it is unlikely that all insights, experts and stakeholder views can easily be put together, it will be necessary to reflect on how the different concepts, methods, assumptions and normative statements that have been assembled can be related to each other. Importantly, this can only be done by a teacher who is not only an expert in her field but also has the necessary meta-theoretical and philosophical insights and skills. This is likely to be challenging for her as well, as this process and the resulting problem definition will be at least partially new, preempting her completely relying on pre-existing knowledge. On the contrary, it will likely force her to participate actively in this research process, which allows students also to witness closely how she approaches this demanding situation which will in itself offer important insights to them. In such a situation, teacher and students are equally engaged in entering unknown territory, which emancipates the students in a way that other educational models hardly do.

Similar forms of circulation will obtain in the next phases of such a research process, as when the now determined problem is subsequently investigated and the eventual research results are implemented in one way or another. Clearly, this process will look differently depending upon the problem at stake and the students involved. As a consequence, the modes of circulation will differ from case to case as well. An analysis of alternative interpretations of a Homeric simile which draws upon different theoretical frameworks and linguistic insights will yield a completely different process, including different types of circulation, than the development of policy advice in response to demographic and economic changes in a particular urban area, or the explanation of the role of maternal stress via a specific epigenetic factor in the development of a particular type of cancer. Depending upon the stage of the students’ education – whether at the undergraduate or graduate level – they can perform a certain amount of original or empirical research themselves while relying for other insights upon already available resources, which the teacher must help to assess adequately.

Referring to the three dimensions of research-based education mentioned above, this circulation model is very different from a process in which the teacher possesses and provides all necessary expertise and knowledge which is then transmitted to the student – perhaps in the form of predetermined problem cases.[11] Instead, in our model the research problem itself needs to be determined as must the necessary composition of the research team – including different disciplinary and stakeholder perspectives – even before the research itself can begin. Moreover, insights derived from new perspectives might force a revisitation of the initial problem definition, critiquing it for leaving out relevant features of the problem (Keestra 2012; Repko 2008). In our description of the ideal-type of such a research process, students are granted freedom in the choice of the problem they will be trying to solve and the teacher – or teachers – facilitating their research process will herself almost need to take up a role of a co-creating researcher. In such a circulation model of education the borders and distinctions between the intelligence and activity of the teacher and of the students are erased, and students and teachers are encouraged to benefit mutually from each others’ activities.

After this brief description of students’ research projects that concurs with our idea of a circulation model, motivated by the aims of 1) connecting research and teaching and 2) stimulating creativity and innovation, while keeping an eye on the increasing demand for inter- and transdisciplinary research, what should the implication of this be for current academic programs? Moreover, what does the other development mentioned above, the still growing number of university students, imply for teaching such research projects?

One of the consequences of our preceding analysis and description is that universities should offer students more opportunities for engaging in such team-research projects across the boundaries of their programs and disciplines than is now usually the case. Obviously, these should be offered in addition to and not as a substitution for courses that introduce students to particular contents and methods: we are not denying the merit of such predetermined and standardized courses as part of an academic program nor do we deny the importance of sound disciplinary training. However, only if students will have the opportunity to engage in such research projects can they truly be prepared for the work that most academics inside and outside of academia are performing. Such work will scarcely be conducted by an individual academic without interaction with individuals from other disciplines or other walks of life, on the contrary. Whether it is in the form of clients or customers, policy-makers or citizens, patients or other stakeholders, academics will need to be able to interact, communicate and collaborate adequately during such research projects.

Another consequence is that it should be recognized that enabling students to participate in such research projects might require extra efforts and resources. Whereas it sometimes happens, for example at the UvA, that interdisciplinary or liberal arts programs are being proposed in parallel to budget-cuts measures (see footnote 1), these practices are questionable and often fail to reach such a goal (see Augsburg, Henry, Newell, & Szostak 2009). The non-standard teacher-student interaction upon which our circulation model relies is such that it requires even a senior teacher with extensive teaching and research experience extra time and efforts to prepare if she is to adequately facilitate and guide her students through the research process focused on the particular real-world problem that they have settled upon.[12] Indeed, the new group of teachers that the Secretary of Education has recently promised to appoint could be put to optimal use in such projects.[13]

Though these observations may appear disheartening, we want to close with a final and more optimistic consequence that can be drawn. When teachers and students move away from the increasingly prominent predetermined and standardized model of education and engage with each other in the way captured by our circulation model, they will contribute to fulfilling the demands that were captured by the two points upon which the board, faculty and students of the UvA agreed and which were mentioned above: (6) to give priority to creativity and innovation in education and research and (7) link education with, and value it as highly as, research. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, they will revitalize and update the early modern ‘universitas’ or association between researchers, teachers and students from which the current universities stem. Through such projects, the circulation will be fostered between research and teaching, between teachers and students, between meta-reflection and research, between disciplines, between disciplinary and experiential knowledge, between doing research and (meta-)reflection upon research, contributing to the essential role that academia has to play in our current knowledge society. We hope that in future discussions about the new university the importance of this interaction between students and teachers will be recognized and will be given the role it should have, to the benefit of all actors involved and of the society at large.

To Love or to be Loved?

1. Introduction

Of all the people stung by Socrates’ critical questions, none was more dramatically affected than the handsome, intelligent youth Alcibiades. In the dialogues Alcibiades I and Symposium, Plato describes how Alcibiades’ encounter with Socrates instigates a painfully critical reevaluation of the young man’s ambitions and disposition. What values should he uphold? Which goals should he pursue? How should he live? Alcibiades is used to evaluate his behavior in terms of the appreciation he receives for his actions. Socrates, however, confronts him with a radically different option: the philosopher does what he considers to be desirable, regardless of the public opinion.

Whereas Alcibiades behaves like an eromenôs or ‘beloved’, Socrates is an erastès or ‘lover’. In this essay, the contrast between these two characters will be used to reflect on the condition of Dutch universities and the protest of their students. The first paragraph opens with a description of the disproportionately high number of expectations students are faced with and goes on to outline two common reactions to these criteria: feverish ambition and detached indifference. Both the ‘excellent’ and the ‘indifferent’ student seem to take Alcibiades’ erômenos-attitude which, I will argue, is problematic. In the second paragraph, Socrates’ disposition is presented as an alternative to Alcibiades’ popularity-centered actions. His erastès-minded behavior is used to interpret the recent student protests. Finally, ‘De Bildung Academie’, a student initiative I am happy to be part of, is introduced as an example of what erastès-based education might look like.

Naturally, the interpretation presented here is only one of the many possible perspectives on the current developments in the academic community. But by connecting the contemporary university with the ancient struggle between Socrates and Alcibiades and with its possible future in De Bildung Academie, I hope to place the debate on academic cultivation in a perspective wider than the now evicted rooms of the Maagdenhuis.

 2. Academic excellence and being beloved

Fortunately, one needs neither to enter into a monastery nor to be the son of a gentleman to gain academic knowledge in our present-day society. Some measure of intelligence, a great deal of perseverance, and the willingness to take out quite a high loan suffice to acquire an academic degree. Whether one’s graduation is considered a success, however, is an entirely different matter. Judging from a number of fairly intimidating lists, the ruling principles of the market of success are many and diverse. An ‘excellent’ paper displays not only in-depth understanding of its topic: it presents an original approach, displays an exemplary execution, and gives evidence of initiative, personal responsibility and intellectual rigor too (University of Brighton 2008). An ‘excellent’ PhD candidate has much more to show than a relevant degree and a letter of recommendation: his portfolio includes certificates from a prestigious foreign institute and an honors program, several publications in top ranked journals, and a résumé mentioning volunteer work and experience as teacher and researcher (Espanta 2013). Meanwhile, students seeking to succeed outside the walls of the university face as much of a challenge as their academically-inclined peers. They are expected to not only acquire a degree, but to give evidence of leadership and innovative thinking as well – either by starting their own company, by being a professional athlete or by holding impressive positions in student societies (Van der Klis 2014). On top of that, excellent students of all kinds must have both the social skills and the energy to build an extensive network, so as to maximise their high potential. These intelligent, inventive, experienced and strategic students bear the characteristics of the professors and CEOs of tomorrow. These are the high-quality products universities strive to manufacture (Kouwenberg & Dekkers 2013: 3-4).

Thus, the modern-day student is confronted with alarmingly high expectations, to which he can respond in several ways. Some of us do everything we can to live up to the criteria of excellence. The sad truth is that many of us fall short of the norms we attempt to uphold; they are simply too demanding to meet. The almost inevitable lack of success that results from the grand ambitions of the excellence-hungering students may explain the common occurrence of nervousness and burn-outs in young people (Lijst Calimero 2014). A completely different reaction to the intimidating excellence-criteria is to give up trying to be excellent, so as to avoid disappointment. The indifferent student lives from exam to exam to certificate without even trying for a grade higher than a pass, and without even thinking about a job more interesting than dishwashing (sorry to insult you, dishwashers!). The indifferent student does not think highly enough of himself to try for more. At the end of his uneventful academic career, he receives the piece of paper that’s required to satisfy his parents and to get him a job and so he, too, sets out to live up to expectations others have of him – though in a much less risky way than the excellent student does.

To the extent in which they take the expectations of others as the ultimate norm for their own choices, both the excellent and the indifferent student ascribe mere instrumental value to their academic development. If it weren’t for the certificate that awaits him when he has passed all his exams, the disinterested student would not bother to read his course literature. If he didn’t care about the judgment of his potential employer, the excellent student might drop his course on applied statistical methods and quit his position in the Model United Nations altogether. The study-related decisions made by these self-conscious students are not motivated by their studies, but by the admiration, paychecks or status they hope to receive as a consequence of their activities. They act out of a desire to become beloved by others, and thus take what Plato scholar Rudi te Velde calls an ‘eromenôs-attitude’, an attitude incorporated by the character Alcibiades (Te Velde 2006: 40, 175).

For, as it turns out, the burdensome demand to excel that haunts contemporary students is about as old as philosophy itself. Like the excellent student, Alcibiades decides to take on the challenge of success: he ambitiously strives to attain fame and power not only in Athens, but in the whole of Greece – indeed, in the entire world (Alcibiades I, 105a-c). He wants others to acknowledge his great beauty and intelligence; his acts are motivated by a feverish desire to be loved. Thus, he does not bother to decide what he finds worthy of his attention – Alcibiades’ main question is what others judge as valuable. He simply does whatever the majority of the people would admire him for; the value of his acts is assessed with regard to the popularity they buy him. Like the student motivated to complete a course for the sake of the ECTS credits he will obtain by doing so, Alcibiades acts admirably for the sake of the applause it will bring him (Alcibiades I, 104a-c; Symposium, 216b; Te Velde 2006: 79, 170). To the eromenôs, academic development is a means to an end set by popular or authoritative opinion. 

The eromenôs-attitude is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, neither the excellent student nor the indifferent one gains much gratification from their academic efforts. In order to attain perfection in everything he does, the excellent student needs to work around the clock. He thus strains himself to the point of a mental breakdown, but still feels he does not accomplish enough. Meanwhile, the indifferent student dispassionately carries out his ‘duties’; he writes papers and sits exams without feeling any enthusiasm for the education he receives. The excellent student is plagued by obsession, while his indifferent peer is haunted by boredom; both of them suffer from unhappiness. Feverish engagement with academic success causes an atmosphere of nervous fixation, whereas cold detachment from the university creates an unconcerned culture of mediocrity; neither attitude serves the academic community well.

Yet unhappiness isn’t even the worst consequence of the eromenôs-disposition, as Socrates points out to Alcibiades. Since he founds his actions on criteria set by his audience, Alcibiades has effectually made himself a slave to Athens’ crowds; he carries out whatever actions they will give him credit for. By delegating his decisions to others, he degrades himself; he surrenders his authority as if he were an object with no judgment of his own (Alcibiades I, 135c-d; Kal 1997/98). Similarly, the excelling or complying student answers to norms others set for him and is thus enslaved by his professors, parents, peers, employers or whoever else has expectations of him. He has become an object to himself, evaluating his own actions in terms of the eyes of his beholders. The beloved eromenôs is completely dependent on others to sustain his identity.

Ominously, Alcibiades’ eromenôs-attitude not only harms his own subjectivity, but also endangers the polis in which he operates; he is completely corruptible. He is not concerned with what is right, but with what will be most appreciated by the crowds; he lacks a sustainable moral compass (Alcibiades I, 135c-d; Te Velde 2006: 170). Let us, for now, skip the confronting question about the status of the conscience of the eromenôs-centered student and close with the conclusion that academics motivated by a desire to become beloved are slaves to other people’s judgments.

 3. De Bildung Academie and love for knowledge

The barefooted philosopher Socrates does not come across as a very likeable person. Owing to his very annoying habit of asking stinging questions, he has been compared to unpalatable creatures such as gadflies and vipers (Apologie I, 30e; Symposium, 218a). Socrates cannot be called a beloved person. But he is, perhaps more than anyone else, an erastès; he is a lover of the absolute goodness, beauty and truth that have become known as ‘platonic ideas’ (Goldschmidt 1949: 2-4; Te Velde 2006: 40). These ideas can be understood as the intrinsically valuable idealities that constitute the ultimate ends of our desires. They represent absolute perfection and therefore transcend this ever imperfect world – and incite our desire at the same time (Goldschmidt 1949: 16, 21, 32-33; Wedgwood 2009). Absolutely perfect peace – more commonly known as world peace – is an example of an intrinsically valuable ideality that may serve as the ultimate end of the UN’s General Assembly, but is at the same time inherently unattainable; even in the unlikely event of the complete absence of war, the next door neighbors might still be quarreling about the hedgerow. Our efforts are motivated by our love for idealities we can never fully actualize, precisely because they constitute perfection (Kal 1997/98; Wedgwood 2009). Pure beauty is the end of the artist’s efforts; absolute truth is the final aim of journalism; unconditional goodness is the goal of anyone seeking to act justly.

Socrates’ actions, too, are motivated by his love for ideal possibilities. By ceaselessly asking exasperating questions, he seeks to advance the correspondence between the knowledge people actually hold and the pure truth he is in love with. By carefully assessing what constitutes a just act, he attempts to incorporate a fragment of absolute goodness into the actual world (Kal 1997/98). Socrates tries to turn reality into a mirror of the ideas he so dearly loves for their intrinsic value. Thus, his attitude radically differs from Alcibiades’ disposition. Whereas Alcibiades passively awaits acclaim from others, Socrates actively pursues what he himself finds worthy of aspiration. While Alcibiades’ actions merely serve as instruments to gain fame and power, Socrates is intrinsically motivated to act. The erastès is motivated by a genuine desire to do as he does, not by a desire to be admired for his actions (Alcibiades I, 133c-134d; Symposium 210e-212c; Te Velde 2006: 79, 83, 150).

Fortunately, a significant part of the academic community is similarly inspired by a love for what they do. There are people studying mathematics because they genuinely want to understand why there is an infinite amount of odd numbers. There are people studying Russian literature because they deem knowledge about Dostoyevski intrinsically valuable. These knowledge-lovers may be excellent students, but if they are, it is because they study around the clock out of a sincere interest in their courses – not out of an instrumentally-motivated desire to excel. They may also be students that only just manage to pass their exams – not because they cannot be bothered to study hard, but because their desire to learn motivates them to participate in courses they find intellectually challenging. If the erastès happens to participate in an honors program, he does so because he is interested in the program, not for the honor. He studies because he considers academic development intrinsically valuable. These knowledge-loving students respond to the excellence-mania with neither frantic ambition nor defeatist indifference; they simply do not define themselves by the love other persons have for them, but by the love they cherish for other things – such as their studies.

The students participating in or supporting the current protests – not a ‘small group’ – look at their university from an erastès perspective and conclude that ‘top down, efficiency-orientated management damages the very thing a university should revolve around: research and education’ (De Nieuwe Universiteit 2015). Despite the troublesome upshot of the eromenôs approach, the university seems to encourage students, teachers and study programs alike to become as ‘beloved’ as possible. Students are both supposed to excel and to finish within nominal time; teachers are asked to both organize attractive courses and to publish groundbreaking research results. Studies, too, are assessed with reference to their instrumental value: what financial profit do they bring? How many students do they attract? What jobs do they result in? The value of academic education is discussed in terms coined by business schemes, political parties, managers and taxpayers. The university strives to please her beholders and refers to instrumental utility to evaluate her purposes; she has become an eromenôs. Just as Socrates reprimands Alcibiades in an attempt to turn him into a lover of intrinsic values, so the protesting students are trying to reopen the existing academic reality for a reevaluation of its values. The protesting students emphasize the intrinsic value of academic development and scientific research; that is the benchmark according to which the university should fashion her policies. They try to reshape the eromenôs-minded academic reality by confronting it with the ideals the university ought to cherish and pursue, which are worthwhile ideals in their own right.

But no matter how noble their efforts, it may prove very hard to make the university change her attitude. The fact that answering to expectations from others has higher priority to the university than the advancement of academic development is not altogether the fault of its management. It so happens that the university cannot ignore criteria set by politicians or society, because it effectually depends on the money it is granted by these external parties. The university truly is, to some extent, enslaved by the judgment of others; the reality in which the protesters seek to incorporate their ideal university is dictated by the laws of the eromenôs.

Fortunately, however, there are other ways to actualize academic ideals. A group of devoted students and teachers is trying to be the change they want to see in the university. The initiators of ‘De Bildung Academie’ do not wait for managers to reevaluate the university’s aims, but are quite well on their way to effectuating an utterly new academic institute that seems to mirror the ideals that charm both Socrates and erastès-minded students. The development of De Bildung Academie was initiated by political science student Michiel Tolman and professor Eugène Sutorius last November and has greatly advanced since: the organization was joined by five teachers and 31 students, one of which is myself. Of course, De Bildung Academie still has a lot to prove; we have only just welcomed our first generation of students and although more than thirty of our teachers have agreed to give their Bildung lectures for free in the upcoming term, we will need to find funding if we want to continue and expand our mission. But however things may turn out, I believe the educational ideal of De Bildung Academie can play a stimulating and inspiring part in the debate on higher education. De Bildung Academie aims to offer her students the opportunity to develop themselves, both as academics and as persons, because such development is intrinsically valuable – a thought which is, in fact, framed in Dutch law: Article 1 of the Law on Higher Education states that ‘the university should pay conscious attention to the personal development of the student’ (Wet op Hoger Onderwijs, 1.3.5). Although the Bildungsideal our new educational platform relates to is from Humboldtian rather than Platonic descent – the academy’s interpretation of it would, I think, quite please Socrates.

The full time program we hope to offer each term focuses on four core competences. The first is the critical-analytic competence Socrates is so very enthused about. The ability to criticize and doubt what is usually taken for granted is essential to all those who share Socrates’ love for truth. Secondly, De Bildung Academie seeks to promote the moral competence of her students. Moral issues regarding our interaction with the people we meet and the planet we live on ask for careful reflection on what is right and how we should act. Thus, the student is presented with the opportunity to relate himself to the goodness pivotal to Platonic thought. The third competence we strive to advance in our students is their expressive proficiency. Our students are encouraged to interact with beauty, by implementing their findings in an appealing speech, work of art or project. Finally, De Bildung Academie aims to stimulate the development of the student’s empathic competence, providing him with a chance to put himself in someone else’s shoes so as to understand what motivates people that differ from him. For although individual development is taken as an intrinsic value, such formation is essentially linked to the social reality in which it takes place. According to Plato, too, it is the polis that benefits first and foremost from the individual’s attempt to mirror the ideals (Graefe 1989: 14, 91; Kal 1997/98). The erastès who orientates himself on idealities acts as justly, truthfully and beautifully as he can and thus brings goodness, truth and beauty about in the world. The Bildung student can investigate and develop these competences in courses of which both the content and shape are designed by the students who have founded De Bildung Academie and which are to remain open for input by the students participating in them. Hence, these courses are centered around themes in which students take a direct interest – themes ranging from art and identity to money and digitalization (De Bildung Academie 2015).

So De Bildung Academie tries to be a platform that keeps in close touch with the wishes of her students and that founds her educational choices on their intrinsically valuable development. Here, the erastès-minded student may practice his love for knowledge and academic formation without being hindered by instrumental norms. Here, the excelling eromenôs may come to advance his career prospects and find that his love for knowledge is greater than his love to be loved for his knowledge. Here, too, the indifferent eromenôs may come to escape from the responsibilities others ascribe to him and discover he wants to be responsible for his own goals. Our new platform might not have set out to incorporate Platonic ideas, but if Socrates were on the lookout for an Agora in 21st-century Amsterdam, I think he would do well to drop by De Bildung Academie.

Let us hope that the established universities will allow themselves to be inspired by the intrinsic values their discontented students uphold. Let us hope that, this time, Alcibiades will pay heed to Socrates’ plea for intrinsic motivation. Until then, De Bildung Academie may provide the idealistic room where students can come together to love knowledge. 

What Should Democracy Mean in the University

 The 2015 occupation, or, if one will, reappropriation, of university space in Amsterdam that started a national movement for a ‘New University’ in the Netherlands and that possibly (witness the LSE, the UAL, King’s College and others) inspired others internationally,[1] constituted a political event. It constituted a political event because, for some time, it forced a breach in the normalized but utterly empty discourse of excellence that has conquered universities in the last decades. Suddenly it became possible to say that too much emphasis had been put on efficiency (rendement), that universities had been run on the basis of an extremely thin legitimation that in fact amounted to a neoliberal ideology, and that many universities had undergone a process of financialization that had contributed to the promotion of efficiency and return-on-investment ideas and practices to the primary if not sole goal of the university. Suddenly also, administrators at the University of Amsterdam admitted that they agreed with many of the things put forward by the students, and they were ready to make concessions of various nature. However, administrators mostly promised to continue ‘discussion’ and ‘debate’, and the initial refusal by the students to engage in sublimating, normalizing and consensus-seeking discussion greatly enhanced the political space that had been opened. Suddenly, university politics did not mean bargaining. Suddenly it was about principled positions, and holding ground – literally, by occupying the space of first the Bungehuis and later the Maagdenhuis (seat of the administrative board of the University of Amsterdam).

And then came the faculty. Picking up on some of the demands of the students for an internal democratization of the university, ‘democratization’ became the main focal point of what was called ‘Rethink University of Amsterdam’ – a community of faculty from different departments and faculties. The internal democratization that became the main object of struggle for Rethink UvA, and for many other ‘Rethink’ communities around the Netherlands, entailed demands for elected administrators, participation in all crucial decision-making, and that the prerogative of such decision-making should be solely for faculty with input from students. And that, as far as I am concerned, closed down the political space forced open by the occupation of, primarily, the Maagdenhuis. This political space got filled with increasingly intricate procedural proposals. It turned out that what it was all really about was the governance model. The conception of democracy Rethink UvA espoused – and still holds onto – is a type of participatory democracy or, perhaps better, direct democracy, which was also in practice among the students that occupied the Maagdenhuis. It entailed a set of procedures known amongst others from Occupy Wall Street, and at its core is a model of democracy that is radically nonrepresentational but also radically consensus oriented. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, its model was not that of deliberative democracy (which assumes consensus about the reasonable limits of legitimate deliberation), but direct democracy, which hinges entirely, for instance in the format of the ‘general assembly’, on a form of immediate consensus.

The limits of internal democratization

With respect to these demands for internal democratization, I should like to make four points:

  1. First a rather practical point. Internal democratization along the lines suggested during the Maagdenhuis occupation is likely to lead to the articulation of special interests and of the greatest interests, and this will not necessarily be favourable for the humanities. This touches on the larger issue of representation or spokespersonship. For whom and on behalf of whom at their universities do ‘Rethink’ movements speak? Large faculties or departments such as economics, business administration and law, let alone the organizationally anomalous medical faculties, have shown (and are likely to show) very little interest in supporting the demands of protesters. Should democratization lead to referenda, elected officials and the like, this would most likely not end up in the interests of the current protesters. We have to face the fact that many – students and faculty – simply have no problems with the way things are going in Dutch universities. This became explicitly apparent in the show of support for the board of administrators at the University of Amsterdam in April 2015, but it also speaks from the silence of most of the faculty at Dutch universities. It remains a difficult task to convince them that they have it wrong without treating them as the docile clients of an ideological state apparatus (treating them thus is of course an option as well).
  2. Relatedly, the heavy focus on internal democratization smacks of a certain conservatism and an effort to safeguard academic (including professorial) privileges. These privileges mainly have to do with the fact that many in contemporary Dutch academia are publicly funded to perform in a context defined almost completely by internally defined goals, without any practical and consequential concerns of the role of the university in democracy at large. This not only becomes apparent due to the fact that the protests have so far lacked a convincing conception of the public uses of the university (I have made a modest proposal in Schinkel 2015), since – at best – 19th century conceptions such as Bildung have dominated the accounts of the protesters alongside what are often clichéd accounts of neoliberalism, according to which ‘the market takes over from the state’. A more interesting account of neoliberalism, also applied to academia, is given by Wendy Brown in her recent book Undoing the Demos. Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, where she argues (based on Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics) that neoliberalism constitutes a specific rationale – based on market principles – that is extended to non-market domains. And yet interestingly, a similar wish to preserve what exists becomes apparent in her book. According to Brown, liberal arts education has been crucial for democracy in the sense that it helped create an informed, educated public. This liberal arts type of education she then deems crucial to democracy at large: ‘a liberal arts education available to the many is essential to any modern democracy we could value (…) to preserve the kind of education that nourishes democratic culture and enables democratic rule, we require the knowledge that only a liberal arts education can provide’ (Brown 2015: 200). While I am overall sympathetic to Brown’s argument in Undoing the Demos, this type of argument about the democratic relevance of liberal arts education is simply unacceptable. Is she saying European countries, without a liberal arts tradition, have not been proper democracies? She might be right, but certainly not for the reason of not having liberal arts curricula. One could qualify her points on democracy and liberal arts as a form of US-centrism that comes with occupying a hegemonic position – which it certainly is – but beyond that one could say that here, too, a conservatism becomes apparent. In the US, one argues that liberal arts should be retained because it is crucial for democracy. In Europe, the exact opposite is argued: no liberal arts, but disciplinary education, because of its relevance for dmocracy. In both cases, an argument is made to preserve what exists. This idea of conservatism is also warranted in the case of the University of Amsterdam because up until the moment budget cuts came, no faculty protests appeared (exceptions were exactly that). For decades, the legitimation of being publicly funded at universities has been neglected precisely because the money kept coming – even though students have become increasingly indebted for more than 10 years now. But once faculty positions are at stake, hell is raised.
  3. The prevailing conception of ‘democracy’ in the protests is heavily focused on consensus, and it appears based on a neglect of the fundamentally violent dimension of any form of governing. In some respects, it bears remarkable resemblance to a D66-type of conception (D66 is a Dutch political party comparable to the UK’s LibDems), especially when it emphasizes political participation through referenda and elected officials. The history of the use of such instruments does not warrant the idea of revolutionary change (I will have a bit more to say on this in the next section). More importantly, though, the problem here lies in the effort towards ‘participation’ (in politics known as the half-hearted wish to ‘bridge the gap between citizens and politics’) and a form of consensus. Over against consensus and direct participation I would emphasize contestation and distance. Contestation actually allows one to formulate one’s ideals without the burden of sorting out complex practicalities. It allows one to retain a critical stance vis-à-vis administrators, and to have the possibility to vigorously contest what they do. Direct democracy, on the other hand, draws everybody into the process of decision-making, thereby losing the possibility of a critical stance. The very practical form of assembly used in the protests, with regular ‘temperature checks’ and waving hands, is utterly unconducive to articulating dissenting opinions, which means it not only undermines the democratic need to facilitate minorities, but it also digresses towards a conservative and inflexible position, with limited possibilities of openness to new ideas. The only circumstances in which drawing everybody into decision-making and the loss of a critical position would not matter constitute a situation in which direct democracy did not entail some form of, ultimately, violence, i.e., some form of decision-making that of necessity compromises and represses the wants, needs and hopes of some. Such a conception of the political at large is, quite simply, extremely dangerous because it can only accept minority positions as depoliticized procedural outcomes. And so even in the much more inconsequential context of university politics (all pathos aside), I would strongly argue against it.
  4. Finally, participation in all internal decision-making is characterized by a certain professional arrogance that is part of the larger, extremely simplified, frame of ‘professional versus manager’ that involves slogans like ‘the managers have taken over!’ Just because we as faculty work in universities does not mean we are best qualified to organize them. A similar mistake would be made by a patient telling the doctor she knows all about medicine, because she has a body. In some bygone age, perhaps, scholars could lay claim to a wide variety of combined expertise (Newton, for instance, was governor of the Mint), but in our time a profound and arrogant neglect of the complexities of organization and administration entails the suggestion that scholars might do it on the side. Now, crucially, by this I do not mean to suggest that existing administrators have done a fine job. On the contrary! And I’m very glad with the possibility of contesting what they have done, I’m just not so sure that such contestation is best served by forms of participation (inspraak) informed by either direct democracy or deliberative democracy. In fact, many of the griefs of faculty have to do with the fact that, in practice, they have become both professional and manager, which frustrates many because they feel their managerial duties keep them from their primary tasks, which for them are research and teaching (in that order). I agree that such a conflation of professionalism and managerialism is often unwanted, but I would insist that professionals need to reconsider their claims in knowing best how to run a university. Precisely when professionals are good at what they do, and do it indeed as a ‘profession’ in the Weberian sense of a Beruf, they tend (like managers) to be otherwise partial, biased and generally unfit for making decisions in the collective interest that, at times, will necessarily negatively impact their – in practice – narrowly conceived interests. Finally, I do not favour direct democracy in universities because, from the intellectual point of view of a scholarly professional, the everyday tasks of decision-making, organizing and administering are downright boring. So thanks but no thanks.

All this does not mean administrators should be unresponsive to the claims by faculty, or that universities should not first and foremost operate out of a shared substantial conception, formulated by faculty, of what universities are for. Quite the contrary, but I believe these claims and conceptions are better formulated and served when formulated at a distance from day-to-day administration.

Beyond academic capitalism and academic conservatism

Against my expose in the previous section, one might say that an internal democratization of the university is the precondition for the democratic, critical and emancipatory contributions universities make to the world at large – a goal to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. But that would mean that universities were not, on the whole, conservative institutions. And all the evidence points precisely in this direction. The impetus to protest at the time at which it occurred was always to a considerable degree conservative at the University of Amsterdam. A unique collusion of events gave rise to a movement that drew together important parts of the university. First there was the position of the humanities, threatened by budget cuts. Second, there was the top-down move towards a merger of the science faculties of the University of Amsterdam and the VU University (also in Amsterdam), which occurred mostly out of reasons exemplifying academic capitalism (efficiency, rankings etc.) and against the wishes of the majority of the students and the science faculty at the University of Amsterdam. In both cases, then, maintenance of the status quo was the preferred option by protesters. That this is typical of universities has been argued forcefully by Clark Kerr, president of the University of California form 1958 until 1967. In a later essay added to his book The Uses of the University, Kerr discusses the student protests of the 1960s. In those protests, he had an important but contested role as university administrator. Students hated him, and at one point he was called a ‘fascist’, but at the same time the FBI blacklisted him as a subversive liberal and he was fired under such pretenses by then governor of California Ronald Reagan. Looking back on the demands for what he calls ‘participatory democracy’, Kerr notes the conservatism these demands exemplified, and I quote him here because of the clarity of his account and the relevance it has in today’s context, even if what he calls participatory democracy may not be exactly what is proposed today:

‘It is ironic that participatory democracy, with its emphasis that all the ‘people’ should be consulted and all groups have a veto, which was supposed to result in more radical decisions, in more speedy and more responsive actions, has meant, instead, more veto groups, less action, more commitment to the status quo – the status quo is the only solution that cannot be vetoed.’ (Kerr 2001: 134)

Kerr’s larger point, however, is that calls for internal democratization were in the end merely another way in which a general conservatism typical of universities played out in the 1960s. Overall, he argues, universities are very, very slow to change, and this is largely due to the conservatism of faculty members with respect to their own positions. Historically, universities are indeed remarkably stable and longstanding institutions. As Kerr notes:

‘About eighty-five institutions in the Western world established since 1520 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and seventy universities.’ (Kerr 2001: 115)

As Guldi and Armitage have recently argued, this goes for the non-western world as well: ‘Historically, universities have been among the most resilient, enduring, and long-lasting institutions humans have created. Nalanda University in Bihar, India, was founded over 1500 years ago as a Buddhist institution and is now being revived again as a seat of learning’ (Guldi & Armitage 2014: 5). And so, as Clark Kerr concludes, ‘looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in their emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions’ (Kerr 2001: 115). Indeed, what Thomas Jefferson wrote about church and state in his plea for the founding of the University of Virginia seems to apply just as much to universities:

‘the tenants of which, finding themselves but too well in their present position, oppose all advances which might unmask their usurpations, and monopolies of honors, wealth and power, and fear every change, as endangering the comforts they now hold.’ (Jefferson 1818: 12)

I would argue that current protests exemplify a longstanding conservatism and that, while the protests are just and admirable, this conservatism works counter to the establishment of really positive change. Many protesters, for instance, make it seem as if the contingent, historically evolved set of disciplines taught at universities today is God-given, written in stone, and that not a single thing might be changed in them. Of course, as protesters have rightly argued, any change should be backed up by a good story. This can’t be emphasized enough: policy-makers and politicians in The Hague have no tolerance for the type of arguments currently put forward. And for this reason alone, even though I can at some level agree with very many of these arguments, I believe a more seductive argument is needed. So let me posit here, for the sake of argument, that what is shared by protesters and administrators is that they – we in general – lack such a story beyond the types of conservatism discussed above. Even the complaints of protesters have remained largely unchanged. In 1967 Theodore Roszak could write:

‘And what are the imperatives our students would find inscribed upon their teachers’ lives? ‘Secure the grant!’ ‘Update the bibliography!’ ‘Publish or perish!’ The academic life may be busy and anxious, but it is the business and anxiety of careerist competition that fills it.’ (Roszak 1967: 12)

What we have, then, is on the one hand an academic capitalism that is – still – rightly contested, but unfortunately, it is contested by an academic conservatism that seeks administrative participation as a way to secure privileges. Unfortunately, for those implementing ever new forms of academic capitalism (let’s be clear on the fact that this happens, and on the detrimental effects it has), academic conservatism becomes a tool. Larry Summers, for instance, former President of Harvard and former US Treasury Secretary (as such responsible for the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act by adopting the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, paving the way for the credit crunch), said that universities ‘have the characteristics of a workers’ co-op. They expand slowly, they are not especially focused on those they serve, and they are run for the comfort of the faculty’ (The Economist 2015: 16). The sad thing is that he is half right. So far, what has mainly been marshalled against academic capitalism is an academic conservatism. What a sorry state this is for those who lack affiliation with either position!

I’m aware that my use of ‘conservatism’ is somewhat provocative here, and it is conceptually limited to the colloquial sense of wishing to preserve what exists (and so it has nothing per se to do with political conservatism). I use the concept precisely to point out the fact that, in nearly all the protests I witnessed firsthand, the past served as the reference point for the desired situation. Some golden age of the university was often assumed to have existed, and it was vaguely situated in the 19th or the 20th century – two centuries in which universities in both Europe and the US have been almost incomparably different. As noted above, the Dutch embrace of disciplinary education and the protests in Amsterdam against a ‘watered down’ interdisciplinary bachelor in the humanities are in exact accordance with the opposite claim for liberal arts voiced by Wendy Brown. What may well become visible in these discussions and protests is the truly very limited capacity of people to analyze the situation and context in which they have been raised and are enmeshed in, with all the interests such enmeshment brings with it. When I speak of conservatism here, it is intended to provoke three things: 1) a better historical awareness of the situation deemed desirable; 2) a rhetorically more convincing argument, since arguments-from-loss appear as resentment and have no political traction; 3) a conception of the university that is much less focused on internal democracy, and (as Wendy Brown does convincingly albeit with little specificity) much more geared towards specifying the university’s role in democracy at large.

The public tasks of the university

If we are to take seriously the problems that the protesters address – ‘academic capitalism’ is one way of phrasing these problems – but move beyond such conservative responses, we need to renew our understanding of the public tasks of the university. We have in common with administrators the neglect of those tasks when things went well. When trying to formulate them now, attempts are made to give substance to ‘autonomy’ for instance by emphasizing the importance of Bildung. But Bildung was a way of educating an administrative elite and of thereby securing a national culture. Aside from the fact that in an era of more than a thousand subdiscipines it is, in practice, an empty notion, it is a white, elitist conception untenable in an age of mass enrolment. Authors from the political left to the right discovered the obsoleteness of Bildung as an ideal in the 20th century. Gramsci noted with respect to the ‘humanistic programme of general culture’ that it was ‘doomed’ because it had been based ‘on the general and traditionally unquestioned prestige of a particular form of civilization’ (Gramsci 1971: 27) – a prestige no longer unquestioned. And in 1958, Helmuth Plessner explained the problematic situation of the Geisteswissenschaften (what else is new?) out of their obsoleteness now that the Humboldtian ideal had become outdated: ‘Die öffentlichen Institutionen des akademischen Praxis helfen also der geisteswissenschaftlichen Forschung und Lehre weniger als früher (…) In der Epoche des Massenstudiums kann es auch gar nicht anders sein. Humboldt hatte die vorindustrielle Gesellschaft mit ständischen Privilegien vor Augen, in der nur wenige studierten und der Bedarf an Natur- und Geisteswissenschaftlern überhaupt nicht zählte’ (Plessner 1985 [1958]: 170). In my view, whoever yells ‘Bildung’ in the current situation has no idea of what he or she is talking about – and this is typical of much current discussion: just because people work in universities, they think they know about universities; a fatal mistake many a social scientist will recognize from analysis in other domains as well. In effect, then, claims for autonomy and Bildung are often the guises under which a conservative clinging to privileges shows itself, perhaps not quite without false consciousness. Of philosophy, Jacques Derrida has said that it ‘clings to the privilege it exposes’ (Derrida 2002: 1-2; italics in original). We should, then, to paraphrase Derrida, undertake the effort to decapitalize elitist and overblown notions like Bildung.

Instead of focusing on internal democratization, we need a new and convincing, even a seductive narrative of the place of the university in democracy. What we need is a renewal of the public tasks of the university. That means we need a way of saying that democracy at large is helped by the existence of public universities. Neither state nor business are likely to have much interest in such a message. This is unfortunate, because democratic states should be more interested. One option would be to reverse the way in which the Dutch ‘science agenda’ is currently being formed. For a month, people can send in the questions they want scientists to answer through a web portal. That’s a bad way of making science public, because formulating questions is the hardest part even for scientists. More importantly it is a way of drawing the public in by keeping it at a distance. The reverse would be more interesting: have universities, faculties, and departments actively formulate the ways their work is relevant for publics – sometimes for publics that don’t even know they exist as a public. Have universities not merely ‘respond’ to a thing called ‘the public’, but let them make knowledge public by reflecting, always, on the public consequences of their work. Those building smart traffic algorithms might, helped by scholars from the social sciences and humanities, develop a view on the public benefits and dangers of their work (which decisions are tucked away in algorithms? Which options are off the democratic table in favour of technocratic management, such as ‘less traffic’?). Those working in financial economics should be engaged in debates with historians claiming their public uses lie in countering ‘short-termism’ (cf. Guldi & Armitage 2014). Such ‘views’ may be forms of dissensus, when scientists disagree. There’s nothing new in that (many a newspaper article has two scientists subscribing to opposing views), and it nourishes democracy. The question is, then, whether we can politicize science in democratic ways? Can we come up with ways to engage publics with the values at stake in our research and teaching? Mark Brown has argued for a democratization of science to the extent that scientific experts should be seen neither as technocrats nor as value-free but as representatives of specific publics (Brown 2009). Such are promising directions to take the current protests and struggles.

Let me end by briefly stating, for the sake of these struggles and without claiming exhaustiveness, what the public tasks of the university are as I see them. And let me add a few remarks on the consequences for the struggle over the university that I draw from them. They are fourfold:

  1. The provision of accessible education. This means no conservative reflexes about the ‘massification’ of the university. When higher vocational degrees are required even to work at the counter of the supermarket, it will not do to become exclusive. Likewise, we should stop investing in ‘excellent’ students. Politics should withdraw its claim to have a fixed percentage of students in honours tracks. Precisely these ‘excellent’ students are not the ones that need extra investing. We should also stop defining the contours of the university based on the choices of study of eighteen-year-olds. That we have done so up to now is a clear sign of a lack of idea of the university.
  2. The conduct of free inquiry. That means independence from state and market pressures. Since either one of these, often combined, fund research, this is of course quite impossible, but what I emphasize in it is the possibility of critique. Of course the very social sciences and humanities in favour of critique have abolished it for epistemological and other reasons, and of course ‘being critical’ has itself become a neoliberal value pur sang, but still, there should be critique that is more than ‘thinking out of the box’. But upholding free inquiry does not mean the conservative reflex of ‘autonomy’. It rather means reconstituting the role of the university in democracy as a whole.
  3. The provision of a knowledge archive. Universities have unique memory functions. But these should not be unchangeable. Ways of ‘publication’ – often in effect ‘privatization’ – should be reconsidered, and so should the set of disciplines offered. Without pleading for ‘interdisciplinarity’ as a way of imposing austerity, we need to consider whether the memory function of universities remains tenable with increasing disciplinary differentiation.
  4. The provision of public knowledge. This is perhaps the main challenge, especially for inward-looking discussions about internal democratization. The above remarks on the politicization of science pertain to the ways in which we might endeavor to make knowledge public, to thereby aid in the constitution of publics, and to thus give shape to a truly democratic function of the university. If we cannot find ways to do this, we will end up without convincing arguments for being publicly funded.


I’m writing this on an Apple machine, having just watched a BBC documentary on the disastrous working conditions in a Chinese Apple products assembly factory and the possibly worse conditions under which tin – essential ingredient for iPhones – is mined on the Indonesian island of Bangka. I’m struck by the outrage and anger I’ve witnessed in Amsterdam and elsewhere, which is inversely proportional to the apparent lack of anger I see the Chinese and Indonesian workers exhibit. Mostly, the Chinese appear too tired to be angry, and they fall asleep even during work. Many Indonesians have no choice but to risk their lives even in illegal tin mining. Meanwhile in Amsterdam and London hell appeared just around the corner. What is my point here? I think it’s this: our possible contribution – along with the contributions of journalists – to emancipatory politics lies in our efforts at connecting publics in the world. For instance, we may contribute, with knowledge of modes of production, the circulation of capital, the development of technology and the development and use of new materials, and the evolution of social movements, to the establishment of ways through which iPhone users are connected to iPhone workers other than the connections existing today. We might, in whatever limited ways, contribute to solidarity by helping constitute and connect people and publics. IPhone users and producers have a common interest in a dignified life, but as it stands, iPhone users are not connected. For that sort of contribution (and this is but one of very many examples), the type of democracy we need in our universities is not one of consensus, which is effectively a shield for conservatism, but one of contestation.



Power to the Imagination


L’imagination au pouvoir: this was a slogan used in Paris during the May ‘68 revolts; one of my favorites, along with ‘Il est interdit d’interdire’. By a fortunate turn of events, I was there; it was the most formative experience of my life. A year later, the Maagdenhuis was occupied. I participated wholeheartedly, but was not there when the M.E. locked the doors and locked the students in, including the father of my child who was to pick my son up at the daycare center, but could not leave. And since this was before mobile phones, my little boy was picked up late. In the subsequent 27 years the building has been occupied ten more times, with each time the right of students to be full participants in the policy-making of higher education the primary motivation. And so, again, in 2015. Although I am supposedly in the de-briefing phase of my career, the excitement came back that change was in the air, along with discouragement (‘here we go again; nothing has happened’).

When students occupied the Bungehuis in February 2015, I felt this was both too late and targeting the wrong building, and I told them so. Occupying the Maagdenhuis would be an act of history in the form of a didactic masterstroke; for it would be reminding people of the lie implied in the idea of progress; since things have gotten worse since then. The Maagdenhuis stands for the political issue of ‘inspraak’, participation in determining programs. The dean and faculty members of the humanities cannot be particularly blamed for what in fact was decided in Bologna in 1999. That is when the uniform structure and business model of European universities became more important than content, in the vain hope it would increase efficiency and facilitate funding. The resulting diminution of student interest in language programs that had lost their academic attraction is now alleged as the cause of the financial crisis, but it was really the result of those policies.

The choice of the Bungehuis was also timely as well as right, however. Timely: the Bungehuis has just been sold, a monument of architecture belonging to the public, squandered for private use as a private club for elite members. Quick, but one-time-only money, not even that much; loss of history. Public treasures become private property. How dare they? Like the monumental building in The Hague sold to the Angolese consulate and now being irretrievably damaged. This is theft, namely of public property, for it belongs to us all. Between that selling-off of public monuments and the destruction of the cultural monuments of Ninive by IS there is, of course, a huge difference in scale and motivation, but let’s face it: not entirely in kind. To be clear: in my mind, it is a crime. Choosing the Bungehuis was timely, moreover, because what was just then squandered is, precisely, part of what we study in the humanities. History. Occupying it could be seen as a physical impediment to the sale.

Timely, then; and the occupation of the Bungehuis was also right, because it draws attention, not simply to the Humanities as a victim of budget cuts, but to the indispensible contribution of that field of study to the value, usefulness, and the social nature of knowledge as such – whether clearly ‘useful’ or not. Self-critique, as Robin Celikates has argued in his lecture, was and is necessary to make the case for what Kati Röttger called in her lecture, the usefulness of useless knowledge. We must be estranged from the exclusive interest in money, which is so un-strange that it is false, to recycle Hent de Vries’s key argument.[1]

The critique out of which this slogan, ‘power to the imagination’, emerged has nothing to do with facile, cheap revolts against knowledge. On the contrary: it is a revolt against unimaginative reiterations of certain intellectually lazy patterns of thought and related expression. These have lost self-critique (Celikates), a sense of the usefulness of thought (Röttger), and wonder, estrangement from clichés and the ideology that sustains them (de Vried). In my plea for a serious inclusion of the imagination in academic teaching, I will develop here one example only: what the imagination can do is counter the reduction of so-called knowledge and insight to binary oppositions. Such oppositions rule the world, politics, policy-making, and yes, higher education. The primacy of economic considerations is just one consequence of such thinking, where the ‘usefulness’ of fields of study is judged according to its opposition to moneymaking. As if the field of economy is more useful because it attracts many students, thus bringing in income. What is overlooked in such an assessment is that, according to economic thinking, economy as a professional field is, like the military and the spread of ‘consultancies’, a non-productive area and can only be sustained thanks to other areas that are productive. And mind the language, and what it contributes to a generalized lack of insight. For, as opposed to what increasing numbers of people think, language matters. Reducing ‘useful’ to economic yield is a good example of linguistic impoverishment and the blinding of insight in entails.

Thinking beyond economic considerations only requires that we see and cultivate the value of a more complex way of thinking, and for that we badly need Humanities. In this essay I develop one example. This is the possibility to let ourselves be guided by different disciplinary fields in relation to one another. I’ll start with linguistics – one of the more ‘scientific’ fields of the humanities. When we think of Greece we think of hopeless economic problems. But as Greek scholar Maria Boletsi, who teaches in the Humanities in Leiden, has foregrounded in a recent study of the linguistic structure, or non-structure, of the verb form of the middle voice, the middle voice allows us to imagine a position between, say, or beyond, victim and perpetrator. Boletsi studied street art where the slogan, or word, Βασανίζομαιoccurs with astonishing frequency. Boletsi writes early on in her article: ‘It could be (partially and inadequately) translated as “I suffer,” “I torture/torment myself,” “I am (being) tortured/tormented” or “I am in torment.”’

To simplify a complex argument, she concludes that ‘the middle voice here probes the very premises of agency and responsibility in current discourses and negotiates alternative frameworks for their understanding, beyond clear-cut binaries between passive/active, guilty/innocent, victim/perpetrator, powerful/powerless.’ In addition to offering an in-depth analysis of an artistic expression that avoids the elitism of an exclusively ‘high-art’-based art history, and a rethinking of a linguistic form we know from Homer and Herodotus, but is alive today, this study also comes up with a philosophical revision of the victim-guilty opposition, and in that sense, with a critique of opposition as a way of thinking and ordering the world in itself. Boletsi’s study is profoundly interdisciplinary, not in the administrative sense but in a sense that matters when we rethink our curricula.

I adduce this example from street art for many reasons, one of which is the undeniable social relevance of both the analysis and the object of study, which is itself a product of the imagination. Another is the clear plea it makes for a content-driven interdisciplinary methodology. But the principal reason is that it decisively undermines binary thinking. Such case-studies could be put on a program of the New Humanities as an innovative and relevant alternative to the severely reduced standardized programs.

Why is binary thinking so destructive? Binary opposition performs the following moves, all damaging to understanding:

it reduces complexity to simplicity, helping us to grasp what is difficult but also making us forget the complexity    
it further reduces the smaller amount of possibilities to two single poles, in opposition to each other
it orders the two poles hierarchically, so that one pole is valued and the other is not.

From this structure come racism, sexism, ageism, rich-poor divisions, and other forms of discounting groups who don’t have the power to claim their participation – such as the young, or, it seems, students.[2]

Whether the negatively-valued pole is made invisible, hated, despised, violated, not taken seriously, or administratively disempowered doesn’t even matter for the logic. The structure of thought is the same. And that structure, totally pervasive in all areas of society, generates the conflicts it then blames on those who attempt to restore the complexity, and thus take responsibility instead of remaining in the victim position. For the most powerful of all binaries is that between subject and object, in other words, powerful and powerless, perpetrator and victim. Should I add: policy-maker and student? Language, with its binary structure, makes it nearly impossible to think beyond this binary, except in Greek. But it is possible to learn such thinking, and, through a short-term case-study-based course, the Humanities are ideally suited to help society develop such a skill.Now, speculating on alternative modes of teaching, let me explain the potential of the imaginative disentangling of the hidden complexities imprisoned by binary thought a bit further with an example from my own work. Inspired by the concept developed by Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, emotional capitalism, and congenial with the lesson from Βασανίζομαι and Boletsi’s analysis of the middle voice, in our audio-visual exploration of Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Michelle Williams Gamaker and I have staged emotional capitalism as the key to the ongoing relevance of that novel from the past. Understanding that relevance is the indispensible insight that makes cultural history a key field in the Humanities (Illouz 2007; 2012).

Madame Bovary is a work of fiction – useless! – and belonging to the past, an object of history – yet, acutely relevant for today. However, it doesn’t quite fit the standard view that the usefulness of history is the need to understand the past so that we don’t repeat it. This is how literary scholar Susan Suleiman phrased it:

‘How does one create a future that will acknowledge the past […] without repeating it? How does one look at the past with understanding, yet critically, in the etymological sense of ‘critical’ (from Greek krinein, to separate, choose), which has to do with discrimination and choice in the present?’ (1990: xv)

The world has not been too successful in achieving this, so perhaps some more thinking is needed.

By crossing the last frontier of disciplinarity, I have found the integration of studying and making, through the intense dialectic of making what I study and studying what I make, an extremely productive way of gaining insights not so easily available otherwise. I found in Flaubert an illuminating guide. As an artist, in other words, an artisan of the imagination, he imagined and proceeded to show us what Freud and Marx later theorized on the basis of historical and literary sources. But Flaubert was able to overcome the disciplinary boundaries that separated Marx from Freud, and, as if thinking in the Greek middle voice, invented emotional capitalism.[3]

 [image 1] Madame B, directed by Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2013

[image 1] Madame B, directed by Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2013

The skilled salesman in the film surrounds the insecure and unhappy woman with affect. [image 1] He shows through care as a commercial tooland the promise of illusory beauty that will bring happiness, how the economic system we must call capitalism, thinly disguised as neoliberalism, cannot be understood on economic premises alone; nor is, indeed, personal happiness without a social and psychological price-tag. This man is both a brilliant professional, hence, some would say in a binary interpretation, guilty of economic exploitation; and a man doing his job with pleasure because he loves to see the result: beautiful women. The woman buying the over-prized designer clothes feels victimized by a society where women have an unhappy destiny, but when she steals her husband’s credit card to pay for it, she undeniably embarks on a criminal path. To grasp that complicity, think of that middle voice again.

Rereading Flaubert’s novel, I began to vaguely sense the importance for present-day society of this complex but muddled idea. To see this, something crucial happened, that put me in a place beyond interdisciplinarity. To put it briefly: it was necessary to make what I studied. This, I realised retrospectively, is the doing of the imagination. But to know I had to do that I had to study it first. This is why my experience is relevant for the search for alternatives to a reduced and stultified program of study in the Humanities. That ‘studying’ entailed a few tasks. As the novel in question is an object of history, I had to understand, first, that history is not linear. For that, I had to delve into history in the first place, going back to TS Eliot, who wrote this almost a century ago:

‘Whoever has approved this idea of order […] will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.’ (Elliot 1975: 39)

Preposterous indeed, this came from a poet and critic who deeply influenced literary criticism, but also, cannot be taken as radically progressive either. I had to learn to discern, in order to move beyond the binary that rules our view of anachronism as the opposite of linear history. I had to learn, that is, that not all anachronisms are ‘good’, productive because conducive to deep-thought, as well as not all are ‘bad’, flattening time and colonizing the past. Thanks to well-meaning but binary-infected colleagues, the opposition between historical and a-historical thinking has terrorized me for a long time, and it took a lot of imagination to distinguish those flattening, a-historical platitudes from the productive power of a considered anachronism as a figure of thought where, to abduct and distort a term coined by historiographer Hayden White (1973) and put to fantastic use by art historian Michael Ann Holly, ‘the historical imagination’ can be deployed to nuance and deepen our understanding of the relationship between present and past (1996).

In addition to the need to revise my sense of history, there was the need to understand the nuances of the French language, and specifically, the way Flaubert played with the language, adjusting it to his needs when it failed to comply – where linguistics meets literature. Luckily, when I was a student at the University of Amsterdam, this issue came my way through some brilliant teachers, leading scholars with lasting world-wide reputations – I can only mention just some influential publications of the three who inspired me most – and a flexible curriculum, that made room for special case-studies; the presence in Amsterdam of a French cultural center, theater productions that inspired me to see the relevance for the present of the historical objects, and more things which are now considered ‘just fun’ and not economically productive. This is simply false – in Hent de Vries’s sense.[4]

When culture is diminished or disappears, put under threat by binary thought, we all know what happens, because it is happening today. Such destruction is not only culturally, but also economically a terrible and irreversible waste. In this context, it strikes me as deeply ironic that the French program is, today, advertised, in English, as being taught in Dutch. In the ad, not a word of French appears. The loss implied is tremendous. Today, a student would not be able to understand how Flaubert used that venerable language to subvert it from within. Later, following Derrida, we would call this move, deconstruction. In order to understand a cultural artifact, I discovered (without using the terminology) it is necessary to espouse it, enter it, and deconstruct it, all at once.

Not that all was brilliant then. The Maagdenhuis needed to be occupied for students to get a say in the academic programs. That was a tremendous help to get rid of obsolete teaching methods and to nuance elitist reading lists. For a while, all seemed excitingly on the move. But soon enough, at least after 1999 (Bologna), the student participation and the in-depth knowledge were ‘streamlined’ away, as were the possibilities to make special programs, conduct experiments, and develop forms of teaching where learning to think goes both ways because learning is dialogic, and where complexity is seen and valued. A teaching where the lesson from linguistics that the essence of language is an exchange between the positions of ‘I’ and ‘you’, first and second person, is consistently put in practice.

For this, a return to linguistics, now ‘general linguistics’ is useful. This is how I imagine supplementing the course in the middle voice, as sketched out above. Compared to Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze, to evoke a sequence of knowledgeable men, French linguist Emile Benveniste is probably the least recognised of those French ‘masters of thought’ who had such a lasting impact on the humanities during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Acknowledging this influence is a matter of intellectual force and consistency – not to speak of ethics and historical awareness. His work is crucial not only to understanding what Lacan did with Freud’s legacy, to appreciating Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism (the content bias), and to seeing the point of Foucault’s definitions of episteme and power/knowledge. His work is also key to understanding developments in analytical philosophy, as they have filtered through into the study of literature and the arts in the concept of performance.[5]

Benveniste came up with this. Reference – both a verb and a noun – is secondary to deixis, the ‘I-you’ interaction that constitutes a referential merry-go-round.[6] Yet, it has not been one of Benveniste’s concepts that has had the decisive influence. Rather, it is one of his basic ideas: the idea that subjectivity, produced through the exchange between the ‘I’ and the ‘you,’ not reference, is the essence of language. The implications of the primacy of the ‘I’/’you’ interaction for theorising through concepts becomes clear when I bring this Benvenistian idea to bear on the two key concepts for visual analysis (including of literature). In the case of the concept of focalisation, I have proposed a way of reconfiguring it based on the Benvenistian idea, and that deviates from the use Gérard Genette put it to (1972).

Focalisation is the relation between the subject and object of perception. The importance of the concept for me was that in it I found a tool to connect content – visual and narrative, such as images in movement – with communication. It enabled me to account for the subject-constituting element in discourse to which Benveniste’s language theory had pointed me. It was when writing a critical assessment of their differences and their respective methodological and political frames that I understood for the first time the formidable implications of what my seemingly slight amendments had entailed. They appear to be just fussing in the margins about a term, a piece of jargon. But the tiny (in the formal sense) diffe­rences were related to such issues as the blind acceptance of ideological power structures versus the critical analysis of them. For Genette, a narrative can be unfocalised, thus ‘neutral.’ For me, this is not possible, and pretending that it is only mystifies the inevitable ideological thrust of the text. It seems worth noting that this difference, even within a single literary text, already indicates a fundamental difference of disciplinarity between Genette’s literary interest and my own interest in cultural analysis.

Undermining the subject/object opposition promoted by reference, Benveniste, in the same sweep, undermines individual authority, as well as its many models in cultural texts. To examine the inequities and authorities that undeniably structure these texts, the basis of those positions and that distribution is to be sought neither in meaning as the product of reference nor in authorial intention. Instead, meaning is produced by the pressures of the ‘I’ and the ‘you,’ which keep changing places with regard to the meanings that are liable to emerge. These pressures, far from emanating from the subjects whose linguistic position posits them as, precisely, void of meaning, outside of the situation of communication, come to them, fill them with meaning. This filling comes to them from the outside, from the cultural frame the pressure of which enables them to interact in the first place.

But no; the Bologna-based curriculum does not have a place for such a course in the BA program. What we lost with that streamlining was the participation of the imagination. And that is an awful, and, I am afraid, irreversible loss, because, as 17th century Spanish-Dutch-Jewish migratory philosopher and hard-working craftsman Baruch Spinoza already argued, the imagination is of vital importance, indeed, a condition for survival, for thought, which is bound to neither idealize nor forget the past but to live with its consequences. So, let me add a bit of philosophy to the linguistic, street-art, general linguistic and literary course that is my alternative proposal for an impoverished curriculum.

Spinozist responsibility implies this: we are not guilty of the crimes our ancestors committed, but we are nevertheless responsible for their consequences, for we live with and in them, and benefit from them. This has consequences for how we live in the aftermath of colonisation, exploitation, even slavery.  The same holds for present administrators, or managers. They are not guilty – although, like all of us, complicit – in the fatal turn academic education has taken since 1999. But they are responsible for the consequences. Not taking that responsibility is a new crime. If our policy-makers were to just read, perhaps not Spinoza himself, but a small, concise and convincing book that lays out his relevance for today, they wouldn’t dream of clinging to that most damaging ideology of all, the binary opposition between economically productive and ‘just fun’ fields of study – as if the one were even thinkable without the other. Because all those fields of study hang together; they constitute culture; and without culture… well, see what happens. The deep cause: binary thinking. True believers versus pagan dogs.[7]

‘Spinozistic responsibility,’ instead, is derived from the philosopher’s concept of self as social, and consists of projecting presently felt responsibilities ‘back into a past which itself becomes determinate only from the perspective of what lies in the future of that past – in our present.’ Taking seriously the ‘temporal dimensions of human consciousness’ includes endorsing the ‘multiple forming and reforming of identities over time and within the deliverances of memory and imagination at any one time’ (Gatens and Lloyd 81). This pre-posterous responsibility based on memory and imagination makes selfhood not only stable but also instable (82). This instability is a form of empowerment, of agency within a collectivity-based individual consciousness. In Deleuze’s work, this becomes the key concept of becoming. Becoming is a form of movement. And its lack of stability precludes any division in ‘self’ and ‘other,’ hence, the ostracism that otherness and othering entail.

In the Theologico-Political Treatise from 1670, for instance, Spinoza argues – with the use of philosophy, biblical hermeneutics, cultural theory and historiography – that the Bible is not a divinely-derived text but a social construct. This not only allows for a comparison between different versions of the same story – for instance, Jewish and Islamic. It established multi-focality as the norm. The different choices and directions taken by an author record those different versions within a text. Thus, different versions have a normative significance and thereby disclose the imagination in Spinoza’s sense, that is, the culturally determined rules and regulations of a society. Therefore, they are indispensable for the construction of meaning (Bal and Vardoulakis 2011).

The inter-cultural significance of responsibility Spinoza attributes to the fact that people live in a shared, heterogeneous world can only be understood on condition that responsibility is not reducible to an individual, sovereign subject but rather dispersed in a collective imagining. Such a responsibility makes both past and future concerns relevant for the present (Gatens and Lloyd, 81-3). Imagination is Spinoza’s first kind of knowledge. As belonging to the imagination in this sense, beauty becomes imbued in the production of cultural norms that bind a society together. The total field covered by the imagination also includes the fantasies of the prophets that generated culturally cohesive myths. Cultural practice is neither subjective nor objective. Indeed, Spinoza does not seek to dispel the aporia between the subjective and the objective, but rather he further accentuates it: ‘So things regarded in themselves, or as related to God, are neither beautiful not ugly. Therefore he who says that God has created the world so as to be beautiful must necessarily affirm one of two alternatives: either that God made the world so as to suit the desire and the eyes of men, or the desire and the eyes of men to suit the world’ (2002: 54).

The regulative term of this aporia is God. The index of ontology – of the ‘things regarded in themselves’ – is the single immutable substance. But the ontology of humans and of things, or of everything created in nature, is different from God’s, who is, according to Spinoza, neither a creator nor a purposeful actor. In this sense, Spinoza’s substance has nothing do with the God of dogma and the Churches. Rather, Spinoza’s ‘god’ or substance is the regulative term, which guarantees the ontology of being and thought.

This leads us to assessing the ‘usefulness’ of the arts – the domain studied in the Humanities. If the arts have an ethical responsibility, it is to be discerned in their resistance to immediacy, in their affirmation of ‘versioning’ – the production of multiple visions. But this can only occur when artistic practice is understood as the enactment of the rupture of essence and existence. Precisely because the artist practices that rupture, Spinoza thinks that the artist is uniquely positioned to demonstrate it, even more than the philosopher who may be lost in intellectual meanderings:

Finally, if any philosopher still holds doubts whether essence is distinguished from existence in created things, he need not toil away over definitions of essence and existence in order to remove that doubt. For if he merely approaches a sculptor or a woodcarver, they will show him how they conceive in set order a nonexistent statue and thereafter bring it into existence for him.[8]

Art, as a praxis of this rupture, acquires a uniquely didactic and hence ethical significance. In its didactic mission, it will necessarily bridge the gap between young and older people – precariously struggling beginning scholars and their established, immutable colleagues.

It is amazing how relevant Spinoza still is. Our policy-makers will claim that they have no time to read all those texts and images that can inspire us. But they could have the imagination to realize that our students can do so, and take them seriously, outside of the binary between the establishment and the young. And, I am sure, those students would be happy to advise them on what a meaningful curriculum in the Humanities can be, today, even more or less within the economic constraints that the powers that be hold over us, with our complicity. Let me read these ideas, to end with words from the past for the present:

‘Understanding doesn’t happen in isolation. The complex interactions of imagination and affect […] yield this common space of intersubjectivity […] and the processes of imitation and identification between minds which make the fabric of social life. The awareness of actual bodily modification – the awareness of things as present – is fundamental to the affects; and this is what makes the definition of affect overlap with that of imagination. All this gives special priority to the present.’ (Gatens and Lloyd, emphasis added)

Ignoring this past wisdom is a new crime. With French writer Emile Zola, I’d like to end on the phrase j’accuse. I accuse the institution of the neoliberal university, worldwide, of criminal offenses. Selling of our property was one. Discarding, destroying the imagination, another crime. Making our young colleagues sick from overwork and stress, one after another suffering from nervous breakdowns, so that others must step in and get sick in their turn: damaging, physically and mentally hurting people is a crime. It’s called grievous bodily harm. J’accuse.[9]



The Maagdenhuis Occupation, The Crisis of ‘Soft Coupling’ and the New University

When the University of Amsterdam (UvA) announced its plans to restructure the faculty of humanities in Autumn 2014, university managers apparently expected these plans to be reluctantly accepted as the best way to adapt to challenging times[1].  UvA’s humanities faculty had been actively engaged with developing an excellence plan for Humanities in the Netherlands (under the oversight of the Regieorgaan Geesteswetenschappen).  Indeed, UvA’s announced plans were broadly in line with the Regieorgaan’s vision of further specialising and profiling humanities teaching and research provision between Dutch universities.  In a country whose small size has become a near-national obsession, it was self-evidently unreasonable – unaffordable – for every university to try to maintain excellence in all areas of humanities.  From this perspective, rationalisation would further build critical mass, benefit teaching and research provision, and generate economies of scale via efficient provision.  In short, the plan Dean Van Vree presented (Profile 2016) was – at least from the managers’ perspective – the best way to position UvA given falling student numbers, and was despite initial pain, a ‘win-win’ scenario[2].

But substantial opposition quickly emerged not only to the plan, but also to the absence of effective consultation upon whom it was imposed, those who would experience its most dramatic effects, namely students and non-tenured staff[3].  Technically, it was not ‘imposed’, because the UvA did indeed possess comprehensive ‘co-determination’ structures involving staff and students (medezeggenschap) at faculty and university levels.  However, discussions in these bodies made this co-determination’s limits clear[4]: financial restrictions framed so many things as ‘non-negotiable’ that the plan as a whole was effectively non-negotiable.  To university managers, the Humanities Faculty was small, with falling student numbers, and cutting costs to compensate for its predicted falling future income was inevitable.  Financialization in the university made the logic of allocation and deduction models unquestionable despite the fact that the faculty’s financial crisis was entirely the result of a modelling technology process imposed from within UvA (cf. Engelen et al. 2014). But to staff and students that apparent inevitability was artificial, arising from many small prior university choices: budgets were determined by a faculty financial allocation model, and from that centrally imposed faculty overheads must be paid.

The apparently unchallengeability of highly contingent university decisions led to frustration, leading to direct action.  It is the claimed irresistibility of these financial framings in these spreadsheet models to which can be ascribed the Bungehuis and Maagdenhuis occupations.  Protestors demanded a right to challenge managers’ strategically deployed calculative technologies rather than merely express ex post regret over these externally imposed plans.  These occupations also struck a chord with other European universities, eliciting interest in and solidarity for these protests from a variety of fronts, highlighting the urgency of the problem[5]. The occupations are symptomatic of university managers’ more general failures to understand that trumping co-determination and discussion with calculative technologies was a failure of the idea of university democracy.  Protestors have advanced the idea of the ‘new university’ as a neat solution to this failure of democracy[6].  In this paper I argue that this democratic problem can further be illuminated as a problem of soft-coupling.  The characteristic of soft-coupling is essential for the university to carry out its key tasks of creating, disseminating, storing, challenging, critiquing and debunking knowledge for society.  Reflecting on the Maagdenhuis occupation through this lens, I identify three key questions that the notion of the new university must address to allow universities to best function as a learning community and thus contribute to societal development.

The University of Amsterdam and its Humanities Crisis

I firstly place this crisis in perspective by conceptually distinguishing four distinctive kinds of financialized framings that concatenated in UvA via Profile 2016’s unchallengeable rationale.  Firstly were novel Dutch higher education funding approaches in the 1980s, with universities given block grants on an output basis, reflecting student numbers, student completions and Ph.D. completions[7]. University Executive Boards were completely freed from government in spending their allocations and were initially overseen by elected Councils with powers of veto (scrapped in 1998).  Where mechanical allocations threatened to irreparably damage the Dutch science base, the government funded discipline-wide action plans, where groups of departments/faculties developed multi-annual strategic investment programmes filling the gaps left by ‘task allocation/concentration’ and ‘selective shrinkage/growth’.

Secondly, Dutch government real estate management practices changed in 1994, the ownership of increasingly antiquated campus estates passed from university boards; the costs of replacing and upgrading this estate totalled billions of guilders, costs which universities could not immediately cover from their reserves, making real estate management a core task.  UvA’s existing sites mixed dilapidated semi-permanent peri-urban buildings with city-centre prime real estate.  UvA planned rationalisation around four core locations, selling-off surplus sites and negotiating long-term loans from a range of financiers demanding solvency and liquidity covenants (Engelen 2014).  UvA’s Executive Board thereby became fiducially responsible for upholding these covenants, making institutional liquidity and solvency an urgent management concern.

Thirdly, Dutch humanities had been framed as ‘problematic’, with few students, and staff whose research excellence is difficult to gauge using traditional measures – research grants and publication numbers.  1980s changes to university financing severely disadvantaged the humanities, threatening modern languages in the 1980s with extinction.  The Government of the day established a Commission to strategically invest to rationalise and strengthen the humanities (Staal 1987; Van Delft 1994).  But the problems were more intractable than one Commission could solve, and at least three more Commissions (Gerritsen, Vonhoff and Cohen) pored over the same question.  Humanities’ survival, particularly more traditional humanities, became politically dependent on governmental favour granting these disciplines respite from other science system pressures.

Finally was the permeation of excellence and competitive norms into academic life, the belief taking hold that efficiency demanded resources only be allocated to those adjudged to be ‘excellent’ in comparison to others.  A growing set of technologies and techniques emerged for measuring and comparing ‘excellence’, routinizing and abstracting allocation systems that were often initially quite ad hoc and opportunistic decisions.  These technologies constructed an allure that they were capable of taking the ‘correct decision’ and distinguishing the ‘unworthy loser’, framing losers by definition as not excellent and therefore undeserving of resources.  Whether it was an unfunded professor, a researcher made unemployed, a department facing closure or students losing their courses, the dark side of competition was in condemning losers as deserving their fate without right of appeal.

These various framings emerged over thirty years starting with the 1982 TVC funding reforms, then codified into decisions made at the national level, in Parliament , in government, in university administration, in faculty bodies, in higher education sector bodies and agreed with financiers.  Students were reframed from being critical participants in university knowledge communities into a source of income to be managed efficiently.  This was reinforced in the case of UvA Executive Board’s fiduciary obligations to their financiers to maintain solvency and liquidity. Humanities’ existing special treatment through the Regieorgaan Geesteswetenschappen framed further special interest pleading as unfair and unacceptable.  Finally, the restructuring plan was justified as a response to the fact that humanities was unworthy of support because of falling student numbers and low research income, a fact not subject to appeal, even where the rules seemed manifestly unfair.

When you are styled as generating insufficient income for the financiers’ needs, as already being treated with kid gloves, not excellent, and with no right to challenge these ‘facts’ democratically, then democratic co-determination seems worthless.  And it was the realisation of precisely that situation that triggered the direct action protests of Spring 2015.

The Maagdenhuis occupation as a crisis of ‘soft coupling’

Advocates of university ‘modernisation’ – a modish shorthand referring to the desirability of financializing, centralising and standardising higher education – regularly invoke ‘ivory tower’ metaphors to justify their interventions.  Left to its own devices, left to governance by academics, they argue, the academy will turn into itself and stop concerning itself with matters of public interest.  This simplistic idea has evolved into a ubiquitous Whiggish higher education discourse that the past university was an Ivory Tower and the ‘modernisation process’ heralds a bright, entrepreneurial age demanding the university realise its true potential to drive societal development in the era of ‘cognitive capitalism’ (Kloosterman 2010). The university must (be remade to) function as a site of cognitive capital accumulation, capital to be harnessed by society’s entrepreneurial heroes in business life.

Attractive as these somewhat simplistic discourses are, they belie a basic reality of the university, which is arguably, after the established church, the oldest Western societal institution still in substantive existence.  This longevity can in turn be ascribed to the ways that universities meet – and have always met – societal needs.  It was a Pope who populated the University of Paris using Prebendary Stipends as a centralised way of educating a spiritual administrative elite for the Holy See (Rüegg 1992).  The big shifts in university organisation were associated with – and were responses to – ‘big’ societal shifts; the rise of urbanisation and trade saw universities educating temporal as well as spiritual administrators in urban contexts (Bender 1988); the rise of the nation state after 1648 made universities beacons of national ‘high’ culture (Benneworth et al. 2009); industrialisation saw the addition of the research task, technological modernisation saw universities educate societies’ administrative elites, and the mass university emerged in tandem with mature, reflective democratic societies (Delanty 2002).

But universities do not always exist in a harmonious nature with their host societies.  In 17th and 18th century Britain, industrialising society needed more technical knowledge, and the ancient universities rooted in the classic arts and sciences failed to support these new industries. New kinds of institutions emerged, learned societies and technical institutions, to co-ordinate collective knowledge-creating processes (Philipson 1974).  New universities emerged through the 19th century (such as University College London or the University of Durham) offering curricula more relevant for the industrial age.  But this is not to say that universities always have to bend to society’s immediate needs; universities are places where knowledge is created and transferred, but also where existing knowledge can be critiqued, challenged or destroyed.  Green politics in Europe today provides a vocabulary and philosophy by which tens of millions of citizens are able to express their values and beliefs in the voting booth, and its origins lie in philosophy professor Arne Næess’ reflections.  Likewise, unethical anthropologies that justified slavery, colonialism, genocide and racism have been challenged and rejected from the canon as an antecedent to their purging from civilised societal discourse. 

Here lies the rub: universities must serve society without being at its direct service; the institution of university has persisted for centuries because it provides this ‘utility without subservience’.  Universities hold many different kinds of knowledge communities together, different disciplines, different ontologies, different methodologies, different seniorities, different motivations, and build synergies between them.  They provide a ‘soft-coupling’ between these different communities and facilitate the creation, circulation, transfer, disputation and elimination of knowledge (Clark 1986), and soft-coupling is the secret of their success.  Soft-coupling involves different scholarly communities (students and staff) co-ordinating together symbiotically without top-down direction and control, based on mutual respect for each other’s talents, values, diversity, inter-dependency and common interests.  Soft-coupling is not merely a latent mutual respect, but is continually reconstituted via interactions enacting and routinizing this respect and tolerance for diversity into community norms.  This constructs the university as an intellectual space partly protected from – but still sensitive to – societal pressures: this partial protection allows universities to undertake free-ranging knowledge-creation activities ultimately directly beneficial to society.

But what the UvA case suggests is that the modern university is one where these soft-coupling mechanisms – based on a trust of and respect for diversity – are disappearing. Students have become standardised products to be completed within a set time period for a guaranteed fee.  Staff are consumable inputs to this process, individually responsible for ensuring they have the knowledge stocks and funds to cover their own costs. Faculty are tenure who must autonomously generate the income to continually justify their jobs[8].  Humanities becomes another discipline whose staff and students must conform with income generation norms set by more powerful disciplines such as Medicine.  Departments become means for implementing standardised business processes to ‘keep the academic chimneys smoking’, overseen by managers.  Notionally to better serve societies’ needs, but primarily a direct responsiveness to the demands of the most powerful (the Ministry of Education, the City of Amsterdam, the Regieorgaan government policy, the Quality Assurancy Agency, Times Higher and Shanghai University Rankings), capacity for loose coupling has been driven out of UvA.  Humanities staff and students found themselves declared unwelcome in the university nest without right of reply: the Maagdenhuis occupation is symptomatic of not just a crisis in university democracy (mutual respect) but in ‘soft-coupling’ (the institutionalisation and internalisation of that mutual respect).

Perspectives on the new university

This special issue seeks to develop perspectives on ‘the new university’ after the Maagdenhuis occupations.  But proposing new university forms is easy, particularly when the challenges are so obvious, and many supposedly ideal types for ‘universities at society’s service’ have been proposed, whether the enterprise, entrepreneurial or engaged university, the public or civic university or, the democratic university or even the entrepôt university (Benneworth 2014). But the crisis of soft-coupling requires universities to do more than be at society’s service: to avoid being subservient, they must create spaces for mutual respect and trust, and embody new behavioural principles in all their tasks.  This ‘new university’ idea must rebuild this mutual respect, and rebuild the soft-coupling, raising three critical questions to which the proposed ‘new university’ must offer convincing answers.

Firstly, how will the university offer a semi-protected space for scholarly communities, for students and staff, where critique and dissent is not mistaken for disloyalty or treason?  The irony of the increased autonomy of the late 1990s reforms was in providing managers freedom to act but increased direct governmental interference – pressure to hit targets – driving behaviours at odds with the optimum functioning of knowledge-creation communities (whether running diploma factories, dubious publication practices, or overly applied research for clients).  Executive Boards have in turn passed on those interference pressures to their scholarly communities, via financial allocation models mirroring Education Ministries’ funding formulae, decoupling management from their communities[9].  What financial headroom there is becomes passed to individuals regarded as best placed to generate immediate returns through excellence.  The singular funding formula plus university autonomy therefore together meld into an unquestionable expression of an acceptability norm in higher educations, squeezing out difference and imposing uniformity, conformity and orthodoxy.  So how will the new university use executive autonomy to respect individuals’ freedom to use their creativity without a fear of immediate short-term sanctions for failed creative attempts or for contesting and critiquing existing orthodoxies?

Secondly, how will the ‘new university’ rebuild a sense of collegiality between staff and students, engender the mutual respect between different kinds of academics and students that this semi-protection requires, to facilitate collective, community activities at the heart of university knowledge production?  If you have spent your adult life building results from experiments, automated data capture and statistical analyses, then the ‘research practices’ of those reflecting on books, films or the nature of existence can seem anecdotal at best and an unnecessary luxury at worst.  If you are highly successful in winning multi-million euro grants and publishing hundreds of articles, then it can seem hard to respect those whose professorial title has been bestowed for writing a handful of books and a few months research leave in an ‘Institute of Advanced Studies’.  If your students work 40 plus hours a week in laboratories under your doctoral students’ direct supervision, then respecting an education where students apparently receive just a couple of lectures and seminars weekly is challenging. How can the new university deal with these differences in norms and legitimacy between knowledge communities/ disciplines, and what kinds of new or revived institutions and practices are required to restore that respect and trust necessary to allow a diversity of practices to flourish?

Thirdly, how can the ‘new university’ build the necessary solidarity to welcome newcomers into these collective activities, allow acolytes to develop themselves and challenge established ways, thereby ensuring the academic community’s long-term vitality.  Science has long had a Matthew Principle (‘to he who hath shall be given’), recently exacerbated with the pronounced importance of competition, with past competitive success granted a signalling value as an indicator of future promise, thereby encouraging conformity not critique.  The Amsterdam protests latched onto the inequality faced by junior staff deemed as of inferior quality in terms of their research outputs and restricted to short-term contracts with no opportunities for career development or improving their impacts, a manifest unfairness – just one manifestation of the increasing absence of solidarity in academe. Institutions such as journals, research councils and learned societies are functioning less as facilitators and development of talent and potential, and more as certifiers and accreditors of winners in the race to individual academic superstardom.  There are strong pressures for juniors to conform with and copy these trailblazers, making dissent, heterodoxy and creative thinking too risky for most junior staff.  So how will the new university build bridges more generally, not just within its own institutional walls but with learned societies, with journals, with student and staff unions, to restore this nurturing function vital to the health of the universities and their ultimate contributions to society?