Friday, 7 August 2009

Making the university safe for intellectual life

In Twitter type mode today: only time for a brief rejoinder to my previous post. I just want to re-emphasise that the aim was to argue that there is something worth saving in the institution, something irreducible to the character types laboring under the limitations of current conditions. I've said enough in the past to make it very clear [I hope] that it would be very foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which would leave only the blogosphere as a public sphere. It's not clear to me that much can be done for the blogosphere that would be capable of approximating the kind of prescription implied by the title of this post. But anything that could be done is precisely what is downgraded by certain tenured philosophers.

It's ironic that said academics can recklessly skate over the kind of argument I'm presenting here. I'm thinking, for example, of speculative realist Graham Harman, who on his blog makes some incoherent points about the kind of "mouthy punks" whom, he argues, dominate the blogosphere. Harman explains that his interest is only in democratising access to knowledge, rather than democratising knowledge production. I applaud Harman that he is willing to publish a book on Bruno Latour and make it available through open access. He is also willing to debate Latour in a public forum, thereby confirming the social epistemological imperative of having a democratic right of reply. But his distinction between access and production really makes no sense at all. Wouldn't it be the case rather that democratising access would have a "knock on" effect of collectively improving the quality of critical responses, thereby also holding the academic accountable by putting them on "trial"? It is also somewhat disingenuous of Harman to complain about bloggers flaming him behind pseudonyms, rather than standing behind their words. As an academic Harman should already be familiar with anonymous peer review, so in principle he has no grounds for taking exception to anonymous interlocutors. Harman should also understand that not everyone is employed by an organisation that values the expression of "academic freedom" to the extent to which he has grown accustomed as an academic, so it is entirely legitimate for bloggers to protect their true identities. An excellent critical entry point to get at the stakes of this argument can be found here (I recommend reading the responses to that post also, as well as following the links to Harman et al). Not coincidentally, much of that posting chimes with the reservations I've expressed many times about the continental philosophy blogosphere.

I say again: constructive criticism is indispensable, but it can only take place once some ground has been cleared by finding weaknesses in the arguments in question. Harman appears unconvincing then when he says that critics are only motivated by the resentment of not having a "project" of their own. Bullshit. I'm talking about a form of creative destruction that will clear a space for something else. I've always been consistent in this respect in the choice of alternatives I've substituted for the object of each critique. So in this spirit I will invoke again Fuller's social epistemological imperative of the integration of teaching and research in the university as a means of ensuring the continuous destruction of social capital:

"It’s a commonplace to describe the functions of the modern university as the integration of teaching and research. The original idea was for this integration to take place in each professional academic, whose duty to push back the frontiers of knowledge was matched by an equal obligation to make that knowledge available to the widest audience possible. In The Sociology of Intellectual Life, I discuss these two phases as constituting the creative destruction of social capital. Here’s what I mean.

Research involves the accumulation of social capital, as academics, investors and clients create the networks needed to produce and maintain new knowledge. Most, if not all, of these people are motivated by the desire for competitive advantage in the economy, the intellectual field or society more generally. However, the Enlightenment norms of the university prescribe that this knowledge not be limited simply to those able to pay for it; hence, the pedagogical imperative. For its part, teaching requires the translation of knowledge claims into a language comprehensible by those who were not directly involved in its production or, for that matter, are likely to extend it in the directions intended by those so involved. In other words, teaching aims to destroy whatever initial competitive advantage the researchers had. This in turn triggers a new cycle of knowledge-based social capital creation, which will be itself overturned over time, etc. The overall result is a constant stream of innovation that ensures the dynamism of the social order".

Fuller argues that as teaching and research have become more split, this ideal of creatively destroying social capital becomes a more remote possibility. The danger then of Harman's petty style of pedagogy, which necessitates a policing of his interlocutors, is that it attests to academia becoming the victim of its own success in a manner consistent with an emphasis on greater technical specialisation in the period since WW2. Breadth is consequently sacrificed for depth (remember Harman's injunction about not democratising production) and Fuller here echoes Ben Agger's basic argument that was cited in my previous post. The net result of the breakdown each describes is an absence of dynamism in the social order and a mirroring in the blogosphere of the worst excesses of a university unsafe for intellectual life.

So why can't we try instead for something other than the self-serving protection of academic real estate? If Harman's statements demonstrate the extent of his willingness to become reflexive about his knowledge practices, and their effect on others, then he does little to encourage greater interest on my part in his work. It's the reason I've stuck with Fuller. Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise to compare Fuller's critiques of Latour with Harman's general approach in his book The Prince of Networks (just Google to find the free downloadable copy). But until such a time, I will avoid his book like the plague.....

To get a greater sense of Fuller's perspective, I recommend listening to these podcasts:

Steve Fuller (Sociology), The Sociology of Intellectual Life

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