@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

Europe of Knowledge: Paradoxes and Challenges

 

[This article originally appeared in the Federation of Young European Greens’ ‘Youth Emancipation’ publication]

The Bologna process was a step towards creating a “Europe of Knowledge” where ideas and people could travel freely throughout Europe. Yet, this goal is threatened by changes to the structure of the higher education sector and perhaps by the nature of academia itself.

“The Europe of knowledge” is a sentence one can hardly avoid hearing today. It includes the goal of building the European higher education area through the Bologna process; the aim of making mobility a reality for many young (and not only young) people through programs of the European Commission such as Erasmus; and numerous scientific cooperation programmes aimed at boosting research and innovation. The European Commission has committed to assuring that up to 20% young people in the European Union will be academically mobile by 2020. The number of universities, research institutes, think tanks and other organizations whose mission is to generate, spread and apply knowledge seems to be growing by the minute. As information technologies continue to develop, knowledge becomes more readily available to a growing number of individuals across the world. In a certain sense, Europe is today arguably more “knowledgeable” than it ever was in the past.

And yet, this picture masks deeper tensions below the surface. Repeated students’ protests across Europe show that the transformation of European higher education and research entails, as Guy Neave [1] once diplomatically put it, an “inspiring number of contradictions”. This text will proceed to outline some of these contradictions or, as I prefer to call them, paradoxes, and then point to the main challenges generated by these paradoxes – challenges that will not only have to be answered if the “Europe of knowledge” is ever to become anything but a catchy slogan, but will also continue to pop up in the long process of transforming it into a political reality for all Europeans.

Paradoxes: Commercialisation, Borders and the Democratic Deficit

Although a “Europe of knowledge” hints at a shared space where everyone has the same (or similar) access and right to participate in the creation and transmission of knowledge, this is hardly the case. To begin with, Europe is not without borders; some of them are towards the outside, but many are also inside. A number of education and research initiatives distinguish between people and institutions based on whether they are from the EU – despite the fact that 20 out of 47 countries that make up the European Higher Education Area are not EU member states. European integration in higher education and research has maybe simplified, but did not remove obstacles to free circulation of knowledge: for many students, researchers and scholars who are not citizens of the EU, mobility entails lengthy visa procedures, stringent criteria for obtaining residence permits, and reporting requirements that not only resemble surveillance, but also can directly interfere with their learning processes.

Another paradox of the Europe of knowledge is that the massification and globalization of higher education have, in many cases, led to the growing construction of knowledge as a commodity – something that can be bought or sold. The privatisation of education and research has not only changed the entire ethos related to knowledge production, it also brought very tangible consequences for financing of higher education (with tuition fees becoming at the same time higher and more prominent way of paying for education), access to knowledge (with scholarly publishers increasingly charging exorbitant prices both for access and publishing), and changing working conditions for those in the academia (with short-term and precarious modes of employment becoming more prominent). On a more paradigmatic level, it led to the instrumentalisation of knowledge – its valorisation only or primarily in terms of its contribution to economic growth, and the consequent devaluation of other, more “traditional” purposes, such as self-awareness, development and intellectual pursuit for its own sake, which some critics associate with the Humboldtian model of university.

It is possible to see these paradoxes and contradictions as inevitable parts of global transformations, and thus accept their consequences as unavoidable. However, this text wants to argue that it is still possible to use knowledge in order to fight for a better world, but that this process entails a number of tough challenges. The ensuing section will outline some of them.

Challenges: Equality and the Conservativism of Academia

Probably the biggest challenge is to ensure that knowledge contributes to the equality of opportunities and chances for everyone. This should not translate into political clichés, or remain limited to policies that try to raise the presence or visibility of underrepresented populations in education and research. Recognizing inequalities is a first step, but changing them is a far more complex endeavour than it may at first appear. Sociologists of education have shown that one of the main purposes of education – and especially higher education – is to distinguishing between those who have it and those who don’t, bestowing the former with higher economic and social status. In other words, education reproduces social inequalities not only because it is unfair at the point of entry, but also because it is supposed to create social stratification. Subverting social inequalities in education, thus, can only work if becomes a part of a greater effort to eliminate or minimise inequalities based on class, status, income or power. Similarly, research that is aimed only at economic competitiveness – not to mention military supremacy – can hardly contribute to making a more equal or peaceful world. As long as knowledge remains a medium of power, it will continue to serve the purposes of maintaining the status quo.

This brings us to the key challenge in thinking about knowledge. In theory as well as in practice, knowledge always rests somewhere on the slippery ground between reproduction and innovation. On the one hand, one of the primary tasks of education as the main form of knowledge transmission is to integrate people into the society – e.g. teaching them to read, write and count, as well as to “fit” within the broader social structure. In this sense, all education is, essentially, conservative: it is focused on preserving human societies, rather than changing them. On the other hand, knowledge is also there to change the world: both in the conventional sense of the development of science and technology, but also in the more challenging sense of awareness of what it means to be human, and what are the implications and consequences – including, but not limited to, the consequences of technological development. The latter task, traditionally entrusted to the social sciences and humanities, is to always doubt, challenge, and “disrupt” the dominant or accepted modes of thinking.

The balance between these two “faces” of knowledge is very delicate. In times of scarcity or crisis, the uses of knowledge too easily slip into the confines of reproduction – assuring that human societies preserve themselves, usually with the power relationships and inequalities intact, and not infrequently at the expense of others, including our own environment. On the other hand, one-sided emphasis on the uses of knowledge for development can obscure the conditions of sustainability, as insights from environmental research and activism have displayed numerous times. The challenge, thus, is in maintaining both of these aspects, while not allowing only one to assume a dominant role.

Conclusion

These paradoxes and challenges are just a fraction of the changes that are now facing higher education and research in Europe. Yet, without knowing what they and their consequences are, action will remain lost in the woods of technical jargon and petty “turf wars” between different movements, fractions, disciplines and institutions. The higher education and research policies developed in Europe today to a large extent try to smooth over these conflicts and tensions by coating them in a neutral language that promises equality, efficiency and prosperity. Checking and probing the meaning of these terms is a task for the future.


[1] Neave, G. 2002. (2002) Anything Goes: Or, How the Accommodation of Europe’s Universities to European Integration Integrates an Inspiring Number of Contradictions. Tertiary Education and Management, 8 (3). pp. 181-197. ISSN 1358-3883