Morgan Adamson - Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature - University of Minnesota

In "The Humanities and the University in Ruin," John Mowitt, calls for a radical rearticulation of the value of the humanities in the tradition of Bill Reading's University in Ruin. On the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of Reading's landmark work, Mowitt suggests that from the rubble of the modern university has arisen, "a contemporary neo-liberal legitimation wherein the humanities is valued for producing 'flexible' and 'multiply skilled' worker/citizens for the new global economy." For Mowitt, the dogma of neo-liberalism has emerged as the primary legitimating discourse for the humanities, as the university has lost its function as the proprietor of national culture with the decline of the nation state. Given the crisis of legitimation that the liberal arts have undergone, and the context of the control societies within which they persist, Mowitt takes on the daunting task of reasserting the value of the humanities outside of both state and neo-liberal discourses. In doing so, he argues against recent trends in critical university studies that highlight the question of intellectual labor. Particularly, he critiques the formulation of the student-worker a-la Marc Bousquet and others for emphasizing the question of work at the expense of the activity of study, arguing that this emphasis runs the risk of generating a politics of refusal that forecloses our ability to affirm the humanities in our present. To underscore the question of intellectual labor as labor in the tradition of Italian workerism, for Mowitt, ignores the intrinsic value of study, the distinct and defining character of what it is that the humanities do that cannot be fully accounted for by the category of work. In this way, Mowitt's argument echoes Readings, who writes at the end of The University in Ruins that we must "dwell in the ruins without belief, but with a commitment to Thought" (175). For Readings, this thought is non-productive, wasteful, and outside of that which can be calculated on the university’s balance sheets. Mowitt reasserts a commitment to thought, a thought that is not intrinsically tied to questions of labor or utility, but is affirmative of itself. In a university where thought within the humanities has been reanimated and put to the ends of neo-liberalism, we must, according to Mowitt, "re-open the dossier on value and to affirm the urgency of wresting value away from both its cultural and economic degradation within societies of control." This affirmation forms the basis for a politics that works against the insidious trends of the neo-liberal university that would have us do away with Thought altogether.

And as we dwell in the ruins of the university with its shiny and new neo-liberal ornamentation, is it not precisely thought that seems to be under attack at every turn? At my and Mowitt's home institution, the University of Minnesota, the central administration has branded the university "Driven to Discover," as it forwards a radical agenda to restructure the College of Liberal arts with department closures and mergers that seem to have little to do with any coherent intellectual project, but instead enforce an administered interdisciplinarity. In the new college of liberal arts, the humanities is relegated to the most servile of positions in order to cut administrative and instructional costs even further and to make the practitioners of thought into ever more flexible workers. The financial crisis, it seems, has afforded my institution, like many others, the opportunity to enact a series of structural adjustments, the blueprints for which seem to have been lying in the bureau drawer of an administrator waiting for a crisis like the one we are currently living through to take form. As the hallowed halls of liberal arts lie in ruin, shrines to anti-thought are erected everywhere including a new wing of the business school, institutes of biotechnology and the like, etc. Indeed, there seems to be a direct correlation between these two phenomena. As Chris Newfield has shown in The Unmaking of the Public University, over the past several decades, research institutions have developed accounting mechanisms to systematically siphon off tuition money from the liberal arts in order to fund their techno-scientific enterprises.

Mowitt and others seem to suggest that the crisis of the university we are presently living through might be thought of as the final battle being played out between the forces within the university set forth in Kant's Conflict of the Faculties. In Kant's formative articulation, this battle is played out between the lower faculty, the philosophers and guardians of pure reason, and the practitioners of practical reason, whose research is always subject to an external, utilitarian end. Now, left with nothing but a set of neo-liberal clichés, the lower faculty have lost the legitimation that Humboldt assigned to them, nothing less than the "spiritual and moral training of the nation," and "science for its own sake," as Humboldt called it, is inevitably on the decline. This crisis of legitimation, well charted in Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, is the crisis that lies at the heart of both Readings and Mowitt's analysis of the postmodern and neo-liberal universities, respectively. So, then, we must be clear, when speaking of the crisis of the contemporary university, is this crisis of legitimation the crisis to which we are referring? Is not the aforementioned conflict between two forms of knowledge at the center of contemporary struggles over the university? Historically, taking up the defense of thought against the encroachment of the utilitarian and techno-scientific regime of knowledge has been a powerful mode of positioning leftist political struggles within the university and beyond. From Adorno and Horkeimer's critiques of instrumental reason to the March 22nd manifesto in Paris against the technocratic university, widely circulated during the iconic events of May 1968, a rejection of trends towards the domination of practical reason in the modern university has formed the basis leftist political movements in the struggle over higher education. An important contribution of Mowitt's argument is that it recasts the conflict of the faculties in light of what he rightly identifies as a new regime of power within societies of control.

While acknowledging the significance of these struggles, I must pose the following question: is the conflict among faculties set forward by Kant the most adequate way of understanding our contemporary situation? Put differently: what is effaced when we conceive of the "crisis of the university" and the "crisis of the humanities" as one and the same thing? I pose this question here because it is a question that I have been compelled to pose to myself over the past year. After completing my degree in Comparative Literature in January, I took a job as a staff organizer for the United Auto Workers who are currently engaged in a campaign to unionize the graduate assistants at the University of Minnesota. This job took me into the bowels of the buildings that house the enormous scientific, medical, and engineering research complexes that I previously regarded with the utmost disdain. What I found in these spaces, however, was not at all what I was expecting. In organizing the research assistants in the science and engineering departments, I encountered not the self-assured scientists bathing in corporate grant money; instead, I talked to countless students, the majority of them international, working endless hours in the lab carrying out the research of major corporations while earning less than a living wage. I heard horror story after horror story of poor and even dangerous working conditions, horrendous hours, PIs who forbade their graduate assistants from taking vacation, and violations of intellectual property rights that highlighted the intensely precarious nature of the labor of those who carry out the bulk of the actual research that goes on in the applied sciences. Many of these workers in the cognitariat that makes up a large portion of the neo-liberal university are our allies and critical thinkers of higher education in their own right. The most surprising thing to me about these encounters, however, was that in my years of writing and organizing around university politics and labor, I had failed to fully consider working conditions within the sciences. Being a product of the under-funded humanities and what I saw as the university's systematic assault on thought, these questions remained, for me, unthought. In addition to these revelations, I found that those in science and engineering programs often shared the same suspicion and outright hatred of the liberal arts as we had for them. I began to wonder whether or not the perpetuation of this conflict, this division, this battle among the faculties served the interests of the central administration more than the parties involved, furthering a discourse of scarcity that understands survival within the contemporary university as a zero sum game. As these encounters brought me to the limits of my thought, they also expose the limits, or perhaps the unthought, of a particular form of university politics. Is there is a possibility to bring together a politics that asserts the value of the humanities with labor struggles in the university in a way that does not reinscribe divisions and hierarchies within forms of knowledge? The difficulty of such a political project is registered in Mowitt's analysis of the crisis of letitimation within the humanities, and presents itself as somewhat of an aporia.

What is clear is that we cannot imagine a form of knowledge that is outside of the material conditions of its production, a point with which Mowitt would agree. As I have argued elsewhere, the contemporary university is a testing ground for the financial control of cognitive labor. The university is an institution at the forefront of harnessing intellectual labor for the growth of what has been termed the "knowledge economy" not only through the production of knowledge commodities, but through the generation of set of ever-new sets of metrics to constantly measure, assess, quantify, and invest in intellectual labor. At the same time, the university is an innovator in deploying cutting-edge techniques for the creation and management of an ever more precarious, low-paid, and flexible workforce. Moreover, the university is a site through which the mechanisms of financial control have encroached on intellectual life through its facilitation of what I and others have argued is the most virulent and exploitative form of consumer debt in America, student loans. Through the system of predatory lending facilitated by the university, that which was thought to be outside of intellectual life has become its deepest internal limit; finance has been folded into the life of the mind. As the form of the contemporary university becomes ever more an expression these processes, we must revisit the underlying conditions of our thought and its unthought in order to create a politics based the resistance to the financialization of knowledge generally and the increasingly precarious conditions under which it is produced. What Mowitt adds to ongoing conversations around the university is an insistence that those of us in the humanities not lose sight of what it is we are struggling for, which cannot be reduced to better wages and the like, but is, importantly, the power to affirm the singular nature of our thinking beyond capital’s ability to measure it. Though Mowitt distances himself from thinkers of intellectual labor, his argument that we "re: work" study as a "labor of affirmation" seems to resonate with what Gigi Roggero calls "living knowledge," a form of knowledge that, like living labor, does not need the legitimation of capital in order to affirm itself.

"And not in the future tense, either. As various polemicists recently have made perfectly clear, the internet and its cousins give us the ability to reconcile the conflict between, on the one hand, too many universities that cannot control their rising costs and, on the other hand, too many students who cannot afford the rising costs of tuition."

Adam Sitze,
"Response to John Mowitt"

"Sexton makes clear that the critical insistence on the existence of black social life would have to be contended with amidst claims on and claims of the continuing relevance and persistence of black social death and vice-versa. But as this work also makes clear the existence of black social life in all of its modalities does not alter the fact of black social death. That black life is not recognized as life (or life lived) on the order of other lives."

Christina Sharpe,
"Response to Jared Sexton"

"Humanists' habitual recourse to the Socratic [...] seems structured by an insoluble impasse. To the extent we read The Apology of Socrates unironically, as a trial the outcome of which could have been otherwise had the proponent of the 'examined life' only represented himself in court with greater wisdom, our defense of the humanities in Socratic terms betrays the very tradition and the very figure in whose name we so confidently speak."

Adam Sitze,
"Response to John Mowitt"