My title makes a direct, if singular, reference to Bill Readings' 1996 study The University in Ruins, a text whose 15-year anniversary is now upon us. The reasons for this are several, but before delineating them permit me to state in very general terms what the following remarks are concerned to do. Seen from the heights of Table Mountain, without the cloth, my concerns engage the status of the humanities as part of the history of post-secondary education now that its traditional, largely Eurocentric legitimation—think here of Matthew Arnold's appeal to the categories of "sweetness and light" in Culture and Anarchy—has given way to a contemporary neo-liberal legitimation wherein the humanities is valued for producing "flexible" and "multiply skilled" worker/citizens for the new global economy. Although Arnold's view could never effectively hide its compensatory character, that is, its valuation of cultural expression as the means by which to console those torn by social conflicts falsely deemed unsurpassable, the neo-liberal paradigm has demanded that—in a distinctly therapeutic discourse—we simply "get over" our despair about such conflicts and cynically craft, using the available technologies, cultural micro-climates for private use. Taste and literacy converge in becoming utterly personal.
The view advanced and defended here is that this situation—the choice itself—is intolerable, perhaps even unlivable. What is called for, however, is not yet another defense of the humanities, but something more fundamental and for that reason more difficult.
To clarify what I am attempting to get at in saying this I want to take up briefly a very important recent statement on the matter of the humanities. I am thinking of Mahmood Mamdani's "The Importance of Research in a University," a text that takes a bold, if conflicted, stand on the centrality of the humanities to the university in Africa. Aware that Mamdani's status in such debates is in certain respects complicated by the recent controversy surrounding the proposed closure of the Center for African Studies at UCT—a debate about which I know embarrassingly little—I will zero in only on those moments in this particular statement that help me clarify the purpose of my intervention.
Mamdani advocates that, "we have no choice but to train postgraduate students in the very institutions in which they will have to work," a view given autobiographical weight and one designed to address the longstanding problem of the "brain drain" to the North and West. Although by the end of his statement Mamdani importantly problematizes the intellectual character of the local/global distinction presumed at the outset, he takes productive aim at the problem of what he terms, "consultancy," that is, the propensity within Africa—and the continentalism is his, not mine—to reduce research to the largely empirical project of either confirming or challenging research paradigms produced elsewhere. Against the consultant who is a master of nothing, Mamdani calls for the indigenous production and reproduction of experts, experts who would be involved in original research.
In fleshing out what original research might encompass, Mamdani offers the following important evaluation of humanistic inquiry. "In a university, there needs to be room for both applied research, meaning policy oriented research, and basic research. The distinction is this: unlike applied research which is preoccupied with making recommendations, the point of basic research is to identify and question assumptions that drive the very process of knowledge production." Describing the Makerere Institute of Social Research he characterizes the dual engagement of a proper research program by saying, "on the one hand [it involves] a critical engagement with the society at large, and on the other a critical grasp of disciplinary literature, world wide, so as to identify key debates within the literature and locate specific queries within those debates." In characterizing these formulations as "important" I mean especially to underscore Mamdani's insistent appeal to "critical engagement" as a way to think about what is distinctive to research that is humanistic. However, in placing the accent here, I can also indicate what separates my own remarks from Mamdani. Put concisely, what strikes me as underdeveloped in his discussion, is not the distinction between quantitative versus critical research, but an account of the work of "research" that grasps what constitutes its distinctly humanistic value. This is presupposed in Mamdani's nimble glide from "basic research" to the humanities, but it is left unelaborated.
To be clear: what I am concerned to do here is to consider how a "value" for the humanities that appeals neither to Arnoldian Eurocentrism, nor contemporary neo-liberalism, can be teased out of an account of the character of the labor involved in what Mamdani is calling "research."
The "class of '68." This somewhat impish designation for what is also known as French Theory, is, when not simply an object of ridicule, fast becoming a mere term of endearment. Before this process arrives at the zero degree of affect, it seems useful—perhaps now more than ever—to recall that beyond simply grouping a generation of academic intellectuals together, this formulation also foregrounds an important fact. It reminds us that French Theory belonged to the structural crisis of the French university. By this I do not mean that French Theory was either the cause or the effect of this crisis. But rather, that it was interwoven with this crisis and as such invites us to recognize that many of its signature preoccupations not only bear directly on the nature of the university, but they also, for that very reason, retain a certain immediate pertinence for those working to sort the current fate of the university as a socio-epistemological institution. At the risk of stirring an old post, recall that Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge was a study, commissioned by the Conseil des Universites in Quebec, written to, among other things, reorient and rethink the research activities of the Western university. Or, to take another example, that much of Jacques Derrida's voluminous writings on the university, including his unsettling reading of Kant's "The Conflict of the Faculties" emerged from his activities within GREPH, the group for research into the teaching of philosophy that formed in response to a ministerial recommendation that philosophy instruction be removed from high schools. Of course, the international student movement of the 1960s resonated profoundly in various national theoretical and political contexts but in the French case, the snarl between theory and the university seems hidden in plain view.
Perhaps the most sustained articulation of this snarl remains Bill Readings' The University in Ruins. Because this text has been so thoroughly combed (at least in the US context), I want to approach it by, as it were, brushing it against the grain. Consider in this spirit the final three sentences of Walter Benjamin's The Origin of the German Trauerspiel:
In the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings, however well preserved they are; and for this reason the German Trauerspiel merits interpretation. In the spirit of allegory it is conceived from the outset as a ruin, a fragment. Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last. (Origin 235)
These lines, like most, say more than they mean, and certainly more than can be addressed in a short lecture, so I will simply observe that Readings' study has prompted us to hear in their melancholic strains something urgent about the contemporary fate of the university, and this regardless of whether the buildings on your campus qualify as great.
To amplify these strains I digress. My early writing placed strong emphasis on the connection forged by Michel Foucault between "disciplinary power," and the disciplines, that is, those institutionally organized practices that we simultaneously elevate and debase by referring to them as "academic." At the time, this derivative innovation in the sociology of knowledge seemed important largely because of the way it helped bring the anti-disciplinarity of textuality to light. Missing from this discussion, however, was the attention brought to Foucault's concept of disciplinary power first by Gilles Deleuze and later by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. This attention spawned a structural, even historical distinction between discipline and control, a distinction that, in the hands of Hardt and Negri was put to work to, among other things, cast light on Marx's distinction between the formal and real subsumption of labor under capital. There is, of course, much to discuss here but for my purposes what Deleuze's emphasis prompts is careful consideration of what happens to the disciplines with the advent of the society of control, with the advent of the real subsumption of labor under capital, or expressed in the language of contemporary public policy, neo-liberalism.
Marx himself provided important if unwitting insight on the matter when in elaborating the related, and under-valued, distinction between productive and unproductive labor he wrote:
A schoolmaster who instructs others is not a productive worker. But a schoolmaster who works for wages in an institution along with others, using his own labor to increase the money of the entrepreneur who owns the knowledge-mongering institution, is a productive worker. But for the most part, work of this sort has scarcely reached the stage of being subsumed even formally under capital and belongs essentially to a transitional stage. (Capital 1044)
As a reiteration of a parallel he earlier draws between professors and masters within the context of guild production (1029), the later formulation invites one to consider both whether with the advent of the global society of control, school teaching in fact remains lost in transition somewhere between the pre-formal, the formal and the real subsumption of labor, but also to what extent and with what significance does education factor, and factor decisively in Marx's thinking about the becoming real, of formal subsumption. Now, from where I sit the so-called transition is over. The university is a "knowledge-mongering institution" and school teaching is largely productive labor, which is precisely why syndicalism has asserted itself with urgency, if not success, in so many corners of the educational field, but also, more ominously why the drumbeat of "deliverables" or "outcomes," has become tortuously loud.
At the risk of squandering whatever good will these remarks may have generated, I turn now to a speech given over 75 years ago, namely, Martin Heidegger's Rectoral Address, "On the Self-Assertion of the German University." This much raked over address draws out a hypnotically suggestive connection between the university and the disciplines. Arguing that to be worthy of "self-assertion" the university must engage in a vigorous form of self-examination, Heidegger goes on to specify that self-examination ought properly assume the form of a questioning that, "shatters the division of the sciences into rigidly separated specialties," and, "carries them back from their endless and aimless dispersal into isolated fields and corners" ("Self-Assertion" 474). That he is thus binding self-assertion/examination and what we would call interdisciplinarity is perfectly clear. So too, alas, are the political grounds of his questioning. But we need not endorse his studied ignorance of German politics in the 1930s to realize that precisely what neo-liberalism has achieved within all precincts of public education, K through 16 and beyond, is the ruin of the conditions of possibility for what Heidegger calls "self-assertion." It has done so, and this is crucial, not by defeating or overcoming "self-assertion," but by metabolizing and thus neutralizing both it and the interdisciplinary re-structuring of knowledge it heralded. How? By folding the relation of the university to its outside (say, the church or the state) inward. Self assertion succumbs to the compromising vagaries of so called shared or faculty governance. In this sense, however controversial "self-assertion" may have sounded at the time, it has revealed itself to be little more than a re-assertion of Immanuel Kant's ill-conceived Faustian pact with Frederick II, the pact whereby access to enlightenment was secured by exchanging private service for public freedom.
One might well argue, indeed I am prepared to argue, that this is the deep form of the public that the neo-liberal call for economic privatization is designed to re-structure. Surely this, at least in the US context, is what is at stake in the systematic weakening of tenure, in the uncontrolled proliferation of adjuncts, professional administrative appointments and part-timers, in the legislative obsession with graduation rates and progress toward degrees, in the near hysterical resistance to syndicalism (especially in the public sector), in the unrelenting administrative rhetoric of "excellence" and "best practices," and, perhaps most cynically of all in what David Horowitz refers to as the Academic Bill of Rights, that is, the farcical repetition of the tragedy of the 1960s when students in the US and elsewhere sought empowerment by making common cause with other social movements antagonized by the structural adjustments of Empire, not, as is now the case, by litigating over grades or a chimerical absence of balance on course syllabi.
Put simply, academic intellectuals are encamped in the "self-assertive" university that now stands in the ruins for which it had been destined. Inside, strewn in some forensically legible blast pattern are to be found the "interdisciplinarity," "internationalism" and "diversity" that are fast becoming buzzing beacons of banality. To catch hold of the new beauty that flares up at this moment of danger, to redeem the idea of the plan silhouetted by the ruins of this university, it will take different concepts in the hands of differently organized "re: workers."
So how precisely should we conceive these re: workers? This term I derive from "re: working" which I spell, "re, colon, space, working." In the book I have just completed, Radio: Essays in Bad Reception, I propose to use re: working as a novel way to translate Bertolt Brecht's concept of umfunktionierung. More typically, this term is translated either as re-functioning or repurposing, perhaps even reconstructing, all perfectly reasonable choices except for the fact that they fail to capture an important theoretical, even political resonance of the term. Specifically, they drop the reflexivity that mattered to Brecht, a reflexivity that allowed him to suggest that "re: working" radio, had to be as much about radio as about work itself. In effect, radio implicates the labor of our reflection about it in the effort to recast its purpose.
Thus, re: workers. Workers as objects of reflection, but at the same time, workers as subjects caught up in the labor of reflection, of repeating themselves differently. To save time, let me simply assert that an important step has been taken down the path I wish to extend by university theorists in the US like Marc Bousquet and Jeffrey Williams (to pick out two prominent figures), scholars who have insisted that we hear fully the word "worker" in the phrase, "student worker." With compassionate rigor they have, in effect, re: worked the concept of the student by establishing how fully higher education now takes place in the context of a thoroughly neo-liberalized industry that services a clientele of future employees who are plunging ever deeper into debt to secure degrees of ever shrinking economic value. Among the many virtues of this work is that it has helped to politicize, in albeit narrowly economistic terms, the social being named "student worker," yet as crucial as such gains are they risk everything when we too glibly assume that they authorize rewording placards that read, "I Support University Workers," to read, "I am a University Worker," where crucial differences are allowed to go unspoken by the convenient urgencies of solidarity.
So allow me to repeat a criticism Bosquet et al. have already heard, namely, by treating the phrase "student workers" as a pleonasm doesn't one effectively risk factoring the student out of the equation? While it is certainly true that far more attention has been paid to the student as a bearer of cultural literacy or a builder of the nation, this is no justification for abandoning an opportunity to re: work what "student" might mean now that we have taken the step of thinking with agonizing, not to say dispiriting clarity its relation to the social division of labor. Yes, students work, they are part of the system of wage and salaried labor, but how precisely are we to think this fact in the event of the specific labor of studying? This seems to me to be the precise theoretical challenge before us and not only because it represents a move as yet untaken in an argument that concerns us all.
So what would it mean to think students as re: workers, to grasp those who study—and I put it this way to implicate the entire field of "intellectual labor"—what would it mean to re: work the work of study? Two approaches suggest themselves and time will oblige me merely to sketch them. The first looms up in those heated conversations prompted by sympathy strikes where students, typically undergraduate students, accuse their teachers (often themselves graduate students) with exploiting them, with taking something from them that is not rightfully theirs to take. This is a discussion, perhaps more prevalent in the US than elsewhere, whose political valences would be easier to crystallize if we spent some time attempting to detail what Marx meant when, as we have seen, he indexed the transition from the formal to the real subsumption of value to the industrialization of education. Yes, let's be clearer about what real subsumption means, but even more important is grasping and documenting the event of real subsumption as it participates in the extraction of surplus value from educational labor, including the labor of studying. The Weberian "economy of prestige" has perhaps been given a new and decisive relevance by neo-liberalism's fatal attention to performance indicators such as the grade point averages and degree completion rates of student cohorts. The expropriation, or second enclosure of such indices, is routinely used on the academic market to establish comparative advantages over institutional competitors. In effect, surplus value is being extracted from so-called unproductive (intellectual) labor and this produces a link between students and workers that has only the most oblique relation to their jobs.
The second approach involves steering between two tempting, but I think, failed options. Both involve re; working work as such. On the one hand, there is the Italian workerist position. This has roots that extend back to Paul Lafargue and his "right to laziness," but which in the hands of Mario Tronti and more recently Negri, pressures the concept and practice of work within the capitalist division of labor by, when all is said and done, simply refusing to perform it, by, in effect, conflating work with the effort to boycott it. Although the mediating steps would be time-consuming to trace, one might subsume this re: working of work under the heading of George Bataille’s "economy of expenditure." All its many attractions notwithstanding, and to be sure "the refusal to study" has become something of a competitive sport in the US, it should be clear that sooner or later this approach—if grasped in and as the event of studying—cedes the university to the asses of vocationalization that can already be heard braying at its gates. When study simply reverts to training, something important to students is irrevocably squandered. And not in a good way.
On the other hand, there is the option roundly criticized by Jacques Donzelot, and Robert Castel among others. It is likewise a re: working of work. Not by refusing it, but by enjoying it. Although it would take too long to elaborate in detail, Donzelot, in a series of papers from the late 70s, showed with compelling force precisely how the "pleasure in work" movement developed in France to manage, both ideologically and technically, the subsumption of "the social" by economic processes shared an alarming affinity with the "joy in work" rhetoric of the concentration camps of WWII. The immediate target of his criticisms was proposals circulating in Paris for protecting workers from the erosion of their statutory relation to their jobs, proposals that insisted monotonously on the virtues of "permanent retraining" and preventive medicine (largely managing stress and controlling depression). But in generating the genealogy of such proposals Donzelot set in motion concepts that urge us to locate the work of studying within it. Especially important is not just the matter of retraining—are students, especially those in the humanities, not routinely told that employers are keenly interested in their ability to learn and relearn?—but in addition, the rather crucial matter of grasping the place of pleasure in intellectual work. However, in his eagerness to alert us to the risks of succumbing to a fully calculated and therefore suspicious "enjoying what one does for a living," Donzelot settles for an estrangement that only partially illuminates the re: working of study where, in fact, something like intellectual enjoyment does abide. That said, what Donzelot does help us think is the place of something other than the satisfaction of need in the event of work, a thought Marx himself, in basing use value on need, struggled to grasp.
Thus, if theoretical attention to the marketing of student performance constitutes a first approach to re: working study, then the second approach might well be directed at the socially conditioned space between boycotting and enjoying work. In other words, if we want to be clearer about what re: working the work of the student might mean, then we need to articulate in political terms the difference between refusing and enjoying work as it arises in the event of studying. Put differently, we need to grasp the value of what humanists do when they do it.
When in 1971, Foucault was lured away from Philosophy at Vincennes he urged those attending his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France to remember that a "real escape from Hegel presupposes [. . .] a knowledge of what is still Hegelian in that which allows us to think against Hegel." (Foucault 74) I invoke this memory not primarily to draw final attention to another decisive encounter between the "class of '68" and the Parisian university system, but to urge that Hegel's concept, found already in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind, of the "labor of the negative" may help us tease out a practice suspended between refusal and pleasure, a practice that re: works the work of study, and in doing so gives us a way to value the work of the humanities beyond the impasses of Eurocentrism and neo-liberalism.
In the Phenomenology the "labor of the negative" (81) appears when, clearly sparring with Spinoza, Hegel establishes the difference between substance and subject, by asserting that divine intelligence without the "labor of the negative" devolves into edification. Theology, not science. What science, and his word is Wissenschaft, requires is a struggle between knowing and being, a struggle based in negation where the life of the mind advances by assimilating the object and negating the identity between the subject and the object produced through that assimilation. If, as he will go immediately on to say the "truth is the whole" this is because the whole emerges in and through this struggle. These days, of course, we find terms like science, truth, whole, quaint, perhaps even suspicious. But, if we hear faintly rumbling behind them the "labor of the negative" that, for Hegel, is a defining characteristic of the life of mind, then perhaps we have secured new purchase on the work of study. Between refusal and pleasure lies negation.
In a sense, Plato had defended the philosophical vocation in similar terms. In The Republic he proposes that the value of the life of the mind derives precisely from its uselessness, a term taken up centuries later by the founders of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton to designate the power and importance of "pure research." However, what Hegel's formulation gains is an important and explicit reference to "work," to "labor." So much so, in fact, that "the labor of the negative," can be understood to enter into a fecund relation with what Marx called "unproductive" labor, that is, labor thought to expend rather than produce surplus value. For Marx, unproductive labor reached beyond mere consumption (the using up of things of value) to embody a logic that negated that of productive labor, a fact that helps explain the political danger of its real subsumption within capital.
In The University in Ruins this general line of reasoning is taken up under the rather different heading of what Readings calls "dissensus," that is, the non-objective or goal of academic inquiry freed from the quantitative pressures of producing consensus. While this maneuver feels a bit too tidy for me (not to mention that my colleagues have long been masters of dissensus), I appreciate Readings' insistence on the debate over the concept of community from which his insight is derived. Because this debate sought to counter the assumptions of Hegelian and later Marxian sociology (the family or class as defining instances of the social), it also prompts one to hesitate before the concept of negation at work within the "labor of the negative." What prompts this hesitation? In a word, death. A final citation from Hegel's Phenomenology will justify the melodrama of this assertion.
[T]he life of the mind is not one that shuns death, and keeps clear of destruction; it endures death and in death maintains its being. It only wins to its truth when it finds itself utterly torn asunder. It is this mighty power, not by being a positive which turns away from the negative, as when we say of anything it is nothing or it is false, and, being done with it, pass off to something else: on the contrary, mind is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and dwelling with it. (93)
Hegel goes on to clarify that this account of the negative belongs to the very core of his theory of the subject, establishing beyond a doubt that he is not here formulating a therapeutic "acknowledgement of death," but instead producing an ontological structure of death that locates it at the very tip of the spear where consciousness and matter meet in being torn apart. Taken then as part of what is understood as "the labor of the negative," we not only are compelled to grasp it as a synonym for "the life of the mind," but we are likewise compelled to equate negation and death and conceive "the labor of the negative" as something like the work of death. Although his immediate concerns are different, Achille Mbembe raised related issues when he said in an interview with the French journal of Catholic opinion, Esprit:
The totem which colonized peoples discovered behind the mask of humanism and universalism was not only deaf and blind most of the time, it was also, above all, characterized by the desire for its own death, but insofar as this death was necessarily conveyed through that of others, its was a delegated death. ("What" 2/13).
While this necropolitical reading of humanism reminds us to recognize Hegel as a European, it also lets slip, perhaps through it "ablist" assumptions, the provocative ontology of thought Hegel is attempting to establish. That said, and setting aside Freud’s rewording of the death drive as the pleasure principle, it strikes me that however appealing Hegel's "labor of the negative" might be as a way to re: work the work of study, the work of the humanities, it invites a necessary embrace of human finitude that risks de-secularizing the humanities in a rather unhelpful way. Thus, it might therefore make more sense, and with this I will conclude, to engage another figure whose works routinely appeared on the syllabi of the "Class of '68," namely Friedrich Nietzsche. Specifically, what everyone from Bataille to Deleuze responded to in Nietzsche was his insistence upon the power of affirmation, not by any means a saying yes to anything and everything, but an embrace of the continuity between consciousness and matter that the dialectic (whether Hegelian or Marxist) promised to restore only by first negating. There is, of course, an enormous amount to say here, but so as not leave you both exhausted and perplexed, let me propose that we re: work the work of study, of research (to invoke Mamdani) as a "labor of affirmation." That is, as a practice arising wherever and whenever the human is at stake, a practice that grounds the critique of quantification and consultancy in a mode of activity that exceeds them. The point is not simply to assign a new value to the humanities, to shift its ranking in the great chain of being, but to 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. In the process we will not only be saying yes to the labor of study, but to the space and project of the university whether in Africa or elsewhere. If we can formulate what the humanities does, perhaps we will also know where it must take place. In this respect Benjamin got it backwards: it is not the plan of great buildings that shine forth in their ruins, but the building of great plans that give ruin what value it has whether on the first day or the last.
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of the German Trauerspiel. Trans. John Osbourne. London: NLB, 1970.
Foucault, Michel. "The Order of Discourse," in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. London: RKP, 1981.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. J. B. Baillie. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967.
Heidegger, Martin. "The Self-Assertion of the German University: A Rectoral Address," The Review of Metaphysics. Trans. Cairns.
Marx, Karl. Capital vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage, 1973.
Mbembe, Achille. "What is Postcolonial Thinking?" Esprit (Paris) 2004.