@Grand_Hotel_Abyss: digital university and the future of critique

[This post was originally published on 03/01 2017 in Discover Society Special Issue on Digital Futures. I am also working on a longer (article) version of it, which will be uploaded soon].

It is by now commonplace to claim that digital technologies have fundamentally transformed knowledge production. This applies not only to how we create, disseminate, and consume knowledge, but also who, in this case, counts as ‘we’. Science and technology studies (STS) scholars argue that knowledge is an outcome of coproduction between (human) scientists and objects of their inquiry; object-oriented ontology and speculative realism go further, rejecting the ontological primacy of humans in the process. For many, it would not be overstretching to say machines do not only process knowledge, but are actively involved in its creation.

What remains somewhat underexplored in this context is the production of critique. Scholars in social sciences and humanities fear that the changing funding and political landscape of knowledge production will diminish the capacity of their disciplines to engage critically with the society, leading to what some have dubbed the ‘crisis’ of the university. Digital technologies are often framed as contributing to this process, speeding up the rate of production, simultaneously multiplying and obfuscating the labour of academics, perhaps even, as Lyotard predicted, displacing it entirely. Tensions between more traditional views of the academic role and new digital technologies are reflected in, often heated, debates over academics’ use of social media (see, for instance, #seriousacademic on Twitter). Yet, despite polarized opinions, there is little systematic research into links between the transformation of the conditions of knowledge production and critique.

My work is concerned with the possibility – that is, the epistemological and ontological foundations – of critique, and, more precisely, how academics negotiate it in contemporary (‘neoliberal’) universities. Rather than trying to figure out whether digital technologies are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I think we need to consider what it is about the way they are framed and used that makes them either. From this perspective, which could be termed the social ontology of critique, we can ask: what is it about ‘the social’ that makes critique possible, and how does it relate to ‘the digital’? How is this relationship constituted, historically and institutionally? Lastly, what does this mean for the future of knowledge production?

Between pre-digital and post-critical 

There are a number of ways one can go about studying the relationship between digital technologies and critique in the contemporary context of knowledge production. David Berry and Christian Fuchs, for instance, both use critical theory to think about the digital. Scholars in political science, STS, and sociology of intellectuals have written on the multiplication of platforms from which scholars can engage with the public, such as Twitter and blogs. In “Uberfication of the University”, Gary Hall discusses how digital platforms transform the structure of academic labour. This joins the longer thread of discussions about precarity, new publishing landscapes, and what this means for the concept of ‘public intellectual’.

One of the challenges of theorising this relationship is that it has to be developed out of the very conditions it sets out to criticise. This points to limitations of viewing ‘critique’ as a defined and bounded practice, or the ‘public intellectual’ as a fixed and separate figure, and trying to observe how either has changed with the introduction of the digital. While the use of social media may be a more recent phenomenon, it is worth recalling that the bourgeois public sphere that gave rise to the practice of critique in its contemporary form was already profoundly mediatised. Whether one thinks of petitions and pamphlets in the Dreyfus affair, or discussions on Twitter and Facebook – there is no critique without an audience, and digital technologies are essential in how we imagine them. In this sense, grounding an analysis of the contemporary relationship between the conditions of knowledge production and critique in the ‘pre-digital’ is similar to grounding it in the post-critical: both are a technique of ‘ejecting’ oneself from the confines of the present situation.

The dismissiveness Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt school could exercise towards mass media, however, is more difficult to parallel in a world in which it is virtually impossible to remain isolated from digital technologies. Today’s critics may, for instance, avoid having a professional profile on Twitter or Facebook, but they are probably still using at least some type of social media in their private lives, not to mention responding to emails, reading articles, and searching and gathering information through online platforms. To this end, one could say that academics publicly criticising social media engage, in fact, in a performative contradiction: their critical stance is predicated on the existence of digital technologies both as objects of critique and main vehicles for its dissemination.

This, I believe, is an important source of perceived tensions between the concept of critique and digital technologies. Traditionally, critique implies a form of distancing from one’s social environment. This distancing is seen as both spatial and temporal: spatial, in the sense of providing a vantage point from which the critic can observe and (choose to) engage with the society; temporal, in the sense of affording shelter from the ‘hustle and bustle’ of everyday life, necessary to stimulate critical reflection. Universities, at least in a good part of 20th century, were tasked with providing both. Lukács, in his account of the Frankfurt school, satirized this as “taking residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’”: engaging in critique from a position of relative comfort, from which one can stare ‘into nothingness’. Yet, what if the Grand Hotel Abyss has a wifi connection?

Changing temporal frames: beyond the Twitter intellectual?

Some potential perils of the ‘always-on’ culture and contracting temporal frames for critique are reflected in the widely publicized case of Steven Salaita, an internationally recognized scholar in the field of Native American studies and American literature. In 2013, Salaita was offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois. However, in 2014 the Board of Trustees withdrew the offer, citing Salaita’s “incendiary” posts on Twitter as the reason. Salaita is a vocal critic of Israel, and his Tweets at the time concerned Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip; some of the University’s donors found this problematic and pressured the Board to withdraw the offer. Salaita has in the meanwhile appealed the decision and received a settlement from the University of Illinois, but the case – though by no means unique – drew attention to the issue of the (im)possibility of separating the personal, political and professional on social media.

At the same time, social media can provide venues for practicing critique in ways not confined by the conventions or temporal cycles of the academia. The example of Eric Jarosinski, “The rock star philosopher of Twitter”, shows this clearly. Jarosinski is a Germanist whose Tweets contain clever puns on the Frankfurt school, as well as, among others, Hegel and Nietzsche. In 2013, he took himself out of consideration for tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, but continued to compose philosophically-inspired Tweets, eventually earning a huge following, as well as a column in the two largest newspapers in Germany and The Netherlands. Jarosinski’s moniker, #failedintellectual, is an auto-ironic reminder that it is possible to succeed whilst deviating from the established routes of intellectual critique.

Different ways in which it can be performed on Twitter should not, however, detract from the fact that critique operates in fundamentally politicized and stratified spaces; digital technologies can render them more accessible, but that does not mean that they are more democratic or offer a better view of ‘the public’. This is particularly worth remembering in the light of recent political events in the UK and the US. Once the initial shock following the US election and the British EU referendum had subsided, many academics (and intellectuals more broadly) have taken to social media to comment, evaluate, or explain what had happened. Yet, for the most part, these interventions end exactly where they began – on social media. This amounts to live Tweeting from the balcony of the Grand Hotel Abyss: the view is good, but the abyss no less gaping for it.

By sticking to critique on social media, intellectuals are, essentially, doing what they have always been good at – engaging with audiences and in ways they feel comfortable with. To this end, criticizing the ‘alt-right’ on Twitter is not altogether different from criticising it in lecture halls. Of course, no intellectual critique can aspire to address all possible publics, let alone equally. However, it makes sense to think how the ways in which we imagine our publics influences our capacity to understand the society we live in; and, perhaps more importantly, how it influences our ability to predict – or imagine – its future. In its present form, critique seems far better suited to an idealized Habermasian public sphere, than to the political landscape that will carry on in the 21st century. Digital technologies can offer an approximation, perhaps even a good simulation, of the former; but that, in and of itself, does not mean that they can solve problems of the latter.

Jana Bacevic is a PhD researcher at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She works on social theory and the politics of knowledge production; her thesis deals with the social, epistemological and ontological foundations of the critique of neoliberalism in higher education and research in the UK. Previously, she was Marie Curie fellow at the University of Aarhus in Denmark at Universities in Knowledge Economies (UNIKE). She tweets at @jana_bacevic

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