My doctoral thesis at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge is a theoretical engagement with the relationship between critique and knowledge. Looking at intellectual interventions concerning the transformation of higher education and research in the UK between 1997 and 2017, the thesis asked how the critique of these transformations – as part of the broader genre of critique of neoliberalism – simultaneously challenged and reproduced the conditions of its own existence.
The thesis explores the space between Bourdieu’s concept of sociological reflexivity and Boltanski’s sociology of critique, including questions opened by Boltanski’s critique of Bourdieu’s project of critical sociology. In particular, it is interested in the constitution of ‘complex exteriority’ – that is, the epistemic and political position from which critical knowledge claims can be made and justified – in situations where the object and the social context of the claim are not easily distinguishable: in other words, what happens when we produce knowledge that is about the conditions of its own existence. While, to some degree, all ‘reflexive’ knowledge claims are about the society while simultaneously being in the society, this becomes particularly interesting in cases when political or moral authority of these claims rests on the possibility of conceptual distinction between the subject of knowledge (the ‘knower’) and her object (the ‘social context’).
As an empirical illustration, the thesis analysed the critique of UK government’s policies related to higher education and research. It looks at intellectual interventions (books, articles, and other public statements) combining diagnostic and normative narratives concerning the transformation of universities in the UK as cases of intellectual positioning, speech-acts that assign properties to objects and actors in the social realm. It reconstructs ontological assumptions entailed in forms of positioning, and shows how these assumptions are produced in interaction between specific political and historical context of higher education in the UK, and processes of negotiating and delineating boundaries between the academia and other fields of practice.
The thesis uses these findings to situate the questions of knowledge, critique, and the role of social sciences in the present moment with the longer discussion about the relationship between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ (or knowledge and political action) explored in the work of Arendt, Sloterdijk, and philosophers of the Frankfurt School. It shows how current struggles around the nature, position, and future of knowledge reflect the impossibility of reconciling the Enlightenment legacy of critique with Europe’s history (and, seemingly, future) of mass violence, and asks what kind of knowledge – including critical knowledge – can, or should, be carried from this encounter.
P.S. The ‘Harry Potter and’ bit of the title is a joke.