The paradox of resistance: critique, neoliberalism, and the limits of performativity

The critique of neoliberalism in academia is almost as old as its object. Paradoxically, it is the only element of the ‘old’ academia that seems to be thriving amid steadily worsening conditions: as I’ve argued in this book review, hardly a week goes by without a new book, volume, or collection of articles denouncing the neoliberal onslaught or ‘war’ on universities and, not less frequently, announcing their (untimely) death.

What makes the proliferation of critique of the transformation of universities particularly striking is the relative absence – at least until recently – of sustained modes of resistance to the changes it describes. While the UCU strike in reaction to the changes to the universities’ pension scheme offers some hope, by and large, forms of resistance have much more often taken the form of a book or blog post than strike, demo, or occupation. Relatedly, given the level of agreement among academics about the general direction of these changes, engagement with developing long-term, sustainable alternatives to exploitative modes of knowledge production has been surprisingly scattered.

It was this relationship between the abundance of critique and paucity of political action that initially got me interested in arguments and forms of intellectual positioning in what is increasingly referred to as the ‘[culture] war on universities’. Of course, the question of the relationship between critique and resistance – or knowledge and political action – concerns much more than the future of English higher education, and reaches into the constitutive categories of Western political and social thought (I’ve addressed some of this in this talk). In this post, however, my intention is to focus on its implications for how we can conceive critique in and of neoliberal academia.

Varieties of neoliberalism, varieties of critique?

While critique of neoliberalism in the academia tends to converge around the causes as well as consequences of this transformation, this doesn’t mean that there is no theoretical variation. Marxist critique, for instance, tends to emphasise the changes in working conditions of academic staff, increased exploitation, and growing commodification of knowledge. It usually identifies precarity as the problem that prevents academics from exercising the form of political agency – labour organizing – that is seen as the primary source of potential resistance to these changes.

Poststructuralist critique, most of it drawing on Foucault, tends to focus on changing status of knowledge, which is increasingly portrayed as a private rather than a public good. The reframing of knowledge in terms of economic growth is further tied to measurement – reduction to a single, unitary, comparable standard – and competition, which is meant to ensure maximum productivity. This also gives rise to mechanisms of constant assessment, such as the TEF and the REF, captured in the phrase ‘audit culture‘. Academics, in this view, become undifferentiated objects of assessment, which is used to not only instill fear but also keep them in constant competition against each other in hope of eventual conferral of ‘tenure’ or permanent employment, through which they can be constituted as full subjects with political agency.

Last, but not least, the type of critique that can broadly be referred to as ‘new materialist’ shifts the source of political power directly to instruments for measurement and sorting, such as algorithms, metrics, and Big Data. In the neoliberal university, the argument goes, there is no need for anyone to even ‘push the button’; metrics run on their own, with the social world already so imbricated by them that it becomes difficult, if not entirely impossible, to resist. The source of political agency, in this sense, becomes the ‘humanity’ of academics, what Arendt called ‘mere’ and Agamben ‘bare’ life. A significant portion of new materialist critique, in this vein, focuses on emotions and affect in the neoliberal university, as if to underscore the contrast between lived and felt experiences of academics on the one hand, and the inhumanity of algorithms or their ‘human executioners’ on the other.

Despite possibly divergent theoretical genealogies, these forms of critique seem to move in the same direction. Namely, the object or target of critique becomes increasingly elusive, murky, and de-differentiated: but, strangely enough, so does the subject. As power grows opaque (or, in Foucault’s terms, ‘capillary’), the source of resistance shifts from a relatively defined position or identity (workers or members of the academic profession) into a relatively amorphous concept of humanity, or precarious humanity, as a whole.

Of course, there is nothing particularly original in the observation that neoliberalism has eroded traditional grounds for solidarity, such as union membership. Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos and Judith Butler’s Notes towards a performative theory of assembly, for instance, address the possibilities for political agency – including cross-sectional approaches such as that of the Occupy movement – in view of this broader transformation of the ‘public’. Here, however, I would like to engage with the implications of this shift in the specific context of academic resistance.

Nerdish subject? The absent centre of [academic] political ontology

The academic political subject, which is why the pun on Žižek, is profoundly haunted by its Cartesian legacy: the distinction between thinking and being, and, by extension, between subject and object. This is hardly surprising: critique is predicated on thinking about the world, which proceeds through ‘apprehending’ the world as distinct from the self; but the self  is also predicated on thinking about that world. Though they may have disagreed on many other things, Boltanski and Bourdieu – both  feature prominently in my work – converge on the importance of this element for understanding the academic predicament: Bourdieu calls it the scholastic fallacy, and Boltanski complex exteriority.

Nowhere is the Cartesian legacy of critique more evident than in its approach to neoliberalism. From Foucault onwards, academic critique has approached neoliberalism as an intellectual project: the product of a ‘thought collective’ or a small group of intellectuals, initially concentrated in the Mont Pelerin society, from which they went on to ‘conquer’ not only economics departments but also, more importantly, centres of political power. Critique, in other words, projects back onto neoliberalism its own way of coming to terms with the world: knowledge. From here, the Weberian assumption that ideas precede political action is transposed to forms of resistance: the more we know about how neoliberalism operates, the better we will be able to resist it. This is why, as neoliberalism proliferates, the books, journal articles, etc. that somehow seek to ‘denounce’ it multiply as well.

Speech acts: the lost hyphen

The fundamental notion of critique, in this sense, is (J.L Austin‘s and Searle’s) notion of speech acts: the assumption that words can have effects. What gets lost in dropping the hyphen in speech(-)acts is a very important bit in the theory of performativity: that is, the conditions under which speech does constitute effective action. This is why Butler in Performative agency draws attention to Austin’s emphasis on perlocution: speech-acts that are effective only under certain circumstances. In other words, it’s not enough to exclaim: “Universities are not for sale! Education is not a commodity! Students are not consumers!” for this to become the case. For this begs the question: “Who is going to bring this about? What are the conditions under which this can be realized?” In other words: who has the power to act in ways that can make this claim true?

What critique bounces against, thus, is thinking its own agency within these conditions, rather than trying to paint them as if they are somehow on the ‘outside’ of critique itself. Butler recognizes this:

“If this sort of world, what we might be compelled to call ‘the bad life’, fails to reflect back my value as a living being, then I must become critical of those categories and structures that produce that form of effacement and inequality. In other words, I cannot affirm my own life without critically evaluating those structures that differentially value life itself [my emphasis]. This practice of critique is one in which my own life is bound up with the objects that I think about” (2015: 199).

In simpler terms: my position as a political subject is predicated on the practice of critique, which entails reflecting on the conditions that make my life difficult (or unbearable). Yet, those conditions are in part what constitutes my capacity to engage in critique in the first place, as the practice of thinking (critically) is, especially in the case of academic critique, inextricably bound up in practices, institutions, and – not least importantly – economies of academic knowledge production. In formal terms, critique is a form of a Russell’s paradox: a set that at the same time both is and is not a member of itself.

Living with (Russell) paradoxes

This is why academic critique of neoliberalism has no problem with thinking about governing rationalities, exploitation of workers in Chinese factories, or VC’s salaries: practices that it perceives as outside of itself, or in which it can conceive of itself as an object. But it faces serious problems when it comes to thinking itself as a subject, and even more, acting in this context, as this – at least according to its own standards – means reflecting on all the practices that make it ‘complicit’ in exactly what it aims to expunge, or criticize.

This means coming to terms with the fact that neoliberalism is the Research Excellence Framework, but neoliberalism is also when you discuss ideas for a super-cool collaborative project. Neoliberalism is the requirement to submit all your research outputs to the faculty website, but neoliberalism is also the pride you feel when your most recent article is Tweeted about. Neoliberalism is the incessant corporate emails about ‘wellbeing’, but it is also the craft beer you have with your friends in the pub. This is why, in the seemingly interminable debates about the ‘validity’ of neoliberalism as an analytical term, both sides are right: yes, on the one hand, the term is vague and can seemingly be applied to any manifestation of power, but, on the other, it does cover everything, which means it cannot be avoided either.

This is exactly the sort of ambiguity – the fact that things can be two different things at the same time – that critique in neoliberalism needs to come to terms with. This could possibly help us move beyond the futile iconoclastic gesture of revealing the ‘true nature’ of things, expecting that action will naturally follow from this (Martijn Konings’ Capital and Time has a really good take on the limits of ‘ontological’ critique of neoliberalism). In this sense, if there is something critique can learn from neoliberalism, it is the art of speculation. If economic discourses are performative, then, by definition, critique can be performative too. This means that futures can be created – but the assumption that ‘voice’ is sufficient to create the conditions under which this can be the case needs to be dispensed with.

 

 

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