[-empyre-] Engineering the University

Chad Wellmon mcw9d at virginia.edu
Mon Mar 16 11:57:57 AEDT 2015

Concerning the afterlife of the Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) ideals I discuss . . .  First, I think those ideals––be it “the book,” “the encyclopedia,” “the university,” or even “the Enlightenment”––stood in for the desire to manage, master, and organize knowledge. In this sense, the re-invented university occupies a place not just in the history of universities and institutions of higher learning but also the history of media. This desire for a universal, complete, even total knowledge dies hard. We’ve recently seen its resurgence in desires for a total digital archive, from Kevin Kelley’s promise of a “liquid library” of everything to the overwrought promises of big data, another stand in for a desire more than anything else.

Second, and in a non-historicist mode of argumentation, I’d say ideals are what we need now. Many accounts of the university and scholarship––think everyone from Luhmann to Kittler or Menand to Fish––are so structuralist or functionalist in disposition and commitment that they can never make sense of a more basic question: why would someone devote their life to learning, to knowledge, and, even, the university? 

For Fish, for example, the academy is just a job; and, thus, our task and highest virtue as scholars is professionalism. We shouldn’t try to change the world, criticize latent power structures, or create democratic citizens. We have knowledge and skills to impart and that’s what we ought to do. Change the world, as he puts it, on your own time.

I’m sympathetic to many of Fish’s arguments. He has been consistent in his arguments that the only justifications of academic inquiry are internal to to it as a professional activity. He has steadfastly refused to justify what he does, literary criticism to begin with, in terms external to literary criticism. Once you start justifying your reading of Milton in terms of justice or democracy, you’ve subordinated your scholarly activity, and by extension the university, to external goods.  

But, in the end, Fish takes the logic of professionalism to an untenable extreme. It’s as if to suggest that because I am a professor I can only pursue certain ends while doing professor type activities. If only my powers of concentration and commitment to my profession were so strong. Ultimately, the limitations of Fish’s insistent and proud professionalism are to be found in the ethos that it imparts and cultivates – a glib ascension to the logics and constraints of professional norms that do not serve the contemporary university well. Underlying Fish’s description of disciplinarity, and by extension the university, is a normative claim of what the university should be, namely, a loose conglomeration of disparate, professional spheres of activity defined in relation to one another. 

Fish’s professionalism argument seems particularly ill-advised and irresponsible under our current conditions. First, as Evan Kindly recently noted in this vein, the profession that Fish advices us to simply abide by may well be collapsing. (or at least changing in broad and profound ways). If the academy is just another job, then why would anyone in their right mind choose such a job and its poor prospects for mental health, financial stability, and, well, fill in the rest. Second, if the academy and the university are simply professional institutions bereft of vocational calling or broader ends––if, that is, they are just like any other professional guild or institution–– then they have no claim to a particular ethic or logic that might distinguish them. They can only justify themselves with the regnant ethic and logic of the day––economic efficiency. According to Fish’s argument, the university may well be, as the Silicon Valley heroes tell us, ripe for disruption 

And yet, Fish seems open to such a critique. He concludes “There is No Such Fhing as Free Speech" thus: “The American mind, like any other, will always be closed, and the only question is whether we find the form of closure it currently assumes answerable to our present urgencies."  Is the logic and ethic of professionalism the most apposite form for the contemporary university? Will its radical recursivity make possible the forms of human life that we aspire to?   

It’s in this light that the ideals of those idealist and romantic thinkers such as Schelling, Fichte, and Schleiermacher seem oddly contemporary and, just perhaps, necessary. If we conceed to Fish’s persistent logic and shun the ideals of the university’s history, then, i’m afraid, we may well participate in the university’s dismantling. And I’m not sure what lies ready to replace it. What do we stand to loose if the university were to collapse?

Chad Wellmon
Associate Professor of German Studies
University of Virginia
chadwellmon.com <http://chadwellmon.com/>

Author, Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University <https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/organizing-enlightenment>

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