Boundaries and barbarians: ontological (in)security and the [cyber?] war on universities

baradurPrologue

One Saturday in late January, I go to the PhD office at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge’s New Museums site (yes, PhD students shouldn’t work on Saturdays, and yes, we do). I swipe my card at the main gate of the building. Nothing happens.

I try again, and again, and still nothing. The sensor stays red. An interaction with a security guard who seems to appear from nowhere conveys there is nothing wrong with my card; apparently, there has been a power outage and the whole system has been reset. A rather distraught-looking man from the Department History and Philosophy of Science appears around the corner, insisting to be let back inside the building, where he had left a computer on with, he claims, sensitive data. The very amicable security guard apologises. There’s nothing he can do to let us in. His card doesn’t work, either, and the system has to be manually reset from within the computers inside each departmental building.

You mean the building noone can currently access, I ask.

I walk away (after being assured the issue would be resolved on Monday) plotting sci-fi campus novels in which Skynet is not part of a Ministry of Defense, but of a university; rogue algorithms claim GCSE test results; and classes are rescheduled in a way that sends engineering undergrads to colloquia in feminist theory, and vice versa (the distances one’ s mind will go to avoid thinking about impending deadlines)*. Regretfully pushing prospective pitches to fiction publishers aside (temporarily)**, I find the incident particularly interesting for the perspective it offers on how we think about the university as an institution: its spatiality, its materiality, its boundaries, and the way its existence relates to these categories – in other words, its social ontology.

War on universities?

Critiques of the current transformation of higher education and research in the UK often frame it as an attack, or ‘war’, on universities (this is where the first part of the title of my thesis comes from). Exaggeration for rhetorical purposes notwithstanding, being ‘under attack’ suggests is that it is possible to distinguish the University (and the intellectual world more broadly) from its environment, in this case at least in part populated by forces that threaten its very existence. Notably, this distinction remains almost untouched even in policy narratives (including those that seek to promote public engagement and/or impact) that stress the need for universities to engage with the (‘surrounding’) society, which tend to frame this imperative as ‘going beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower’.

The distinction between universities and the society has a long history in the UK: the university’s built environment (buildings, campuses, gates) and rituals (dress, residence requirements/’keeping term’, conventions of language) were developed to reflect the separateness of education from ordinary experience, enshrined in the dichotomies of intellectual vs. manual labour, active life vs. ‘life of the mind’ and, not least, Town vs. Gown. Of course, with the rise of ‘redbrick’, and, later, ‘plateglass’ universities, this distinction became somewhat less pronounced. Rather than in terms of blurring, however, I would like to suggest we need to think of this as a shift in scale: the relationship between ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’, after all, is embedded in the broader framework of distinctions between urban and suburban, urban and rural, regional and national, national and global, and the myriad possible forms of hybridisation between these (recent work by Addie, Keil and Olds, as well as Robertson et al., offers very good insights into issues related to theorising scale in the context of higher education).

Policing the boundaries: relational ontology and ontological (in)security

What I find most interesting, in this setting, is the way in which boundaries between these categories are maintained and negotiated. In sociology, the negotiation of boundaries in the academia has been studied in detail by, among others, Michelle Lamont (in How Professors Think, as well as in an overview by Lamont and Molnár), Thomas Gieryn (both in Cultural Boundaries of Science and few other texts), Andrew Abbott in The Chaos of Disciplines (and, of course, in sociologically-inclined philosophy of science, including Feyerabend’s Against Method, Lakatos’ work on research programmes, and Kuhn’s on scientific revolutions, before that). Social anthropology has an even longer-standing obsession with boundaries, symbolic as well as material – Mary Douglas’ work, in particular, as well as Augé’s Non-Places offer a good entry point, converging with sociology on the ground of neo-Durkheimian reading of the distinction between the sacred and profane.

My interest in the cultural framing of boundaries goes back to my first PhD, which explored the construal of the category of (romantic) relationship through the delineation of its difference from other types of interpersonal relations. The concept resurfaced in research on public engagement in UK higher education: here, the negotiation of boundaries between ‘inside’ (academics) and ‘outside’ (different audiences), as well as between different groups within the university (e.g. administrators vs. academics) becomes evident through practices of engaging in the dissemination and, sometimes, coproduction of knowledge, (some of this is in my contribution to this volume). The thread that runs through these cases is the importance of positioning in relation to a (relatively) specified Other; in other words, a relational ontology.

It is not difficult to see the role of negotiating boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in the concept of ontological security (e.g. Giddens, 1991). Recent work in IR (e.g. Ejdus, 2017) has shifted the focus from Giddens’ emphasis on social relations to the importance of stability of material forms, including buildings. I think we can extend this to universities: in this case, however, it is not (only) the building itself that is ‘at risk’ (this can be observed in intensified securitisation of campuses, both through material structure such as gates and cards-only entrances, and modes of surveillance such as Prevent – see e.g. Gearon, 2017), but also the materiality of the institution itself. While the MOOC hype may have (thankfully) subsided (though not dissappeared) there is the ubiquitous social media, which, as quite a few people have argued, tests the salience of the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ (I’ve written a bit about digital technologies as mediating the boundary between universities and the ‘outside world’ here as well in an upcoming article in Globalisation, Education, Societies special issue that deals with reassembling knowledge production with/out the university).

Barbarians at the gates

In this context, it should not be surprising that many academics fear digital technologies: anything that tests the material/symbolic boundaries of our own existence is bound to be seen as troubling/dirty/dangerous. This brings to mind Kavafy’s poem (and J.M. Coetzee’s novel) Waiting for the Barbarians, in which an outpost of the Empire prepares for the attack of ‘the barbarians’ – that, in fact, never arrives. The trope of the university as a bulwark against and/or at danger of descending into barbarism has been explored by a number of writers, including Thorstein Veblen and, more recently, Roy Coleman. Regardless of the accuracy or historical stretchability of the trope, what I am most interested in is its use as a simultaneously diagnostic and normative narrative that frames and situates the current transformation of higher education and research.

As the last line of Kavafy’s poem suggests, barbarians represent ‘a kind of solution’: a solution for the otherwise unanswered question of the role and purpose of universities in the 21st century, which began to be asked ever more urgently with the post-war expansion of higher education, only to be shut down by the integration/normalization of the soixante-huitards in what Boltanski and Chiapello have recognised as contemporary capitalism’s almost infinite capacity to appropriate critique. Disentangling this dynamic is key to understanding contemporary clashes and conflicts over the nature of knowledge production. Rather than locating dangers to the university firmly beyond the gates, then, perhaps we could use the current crisis to think about how we perceive, negotiate, and preserve the boundaries between ‘in’ and ‘out’. Until we have a space to do that, I believe we will continue building walls only to realise we have been left on the wrong side.

(*) I have a strong interest in campus novels, both for PhD-related and unrelated reasons, as well as a long-standing interest in Sci-Fi, but with the exception of DeLillo’s White Noise can think of very few works that straddle both genres; would very much appreciate suggestions in this domain!

(**) I have been thinking for a while about a book that would be a spin-off from my current PhD that would combine social theory, literature, and critical cultural political economy, drawing on similarities and differences between critical and magical realism to look at universities. This can be taken as a sketch for one of the chapters, so all thoughts and comments are welcome.


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