Universities

The limits of the literary

Damian Garside

Defending universities against power elites needs an armoury that's better stocked

Graphic: John McCann

What do perspectives generated from literature and literary studies bring to bear on the burning matter of university transformation?

The question was provoked by JM Coetzee's piece in the Mail & Guardian ("Universities head for extinction", November 1 2013) — an article that is not only the (edited) preface to John Higgins's new book, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa: Essays and Interviews on Higher Education and the Humanities, but also an appraisal of it. 

Ultimately, the positions of both Coetzee and Higgins, who were at one time colleagues in the English department at the University of Cape Town, display the strengths and weaknesses of a literary and literary studies perspective on higher education transformation. 

There have been many concerns about what effect transformation of the university landscape, which began in the 1990s, has had and is having on the key activities of universities and their central tasks of teaching and research.

Higgins and Coetzee share a common pessimistic outlook, expressing a fear that the university is going to lose its true identity and become a "university" in name only. That is, an institution that has lost its essential connection to the long-standing practices and traditions through which its dedication to the custody of important knowledge, the fostering of human intellectual development and the preservation of our intellectual integrity has been preserved. 

The argument is appealing (it has its "poetry"). However, the danger in mounting this kind of noble and high-minded defence of the university is that its terminology and ways of thinking do not address similar critiques of the current system of educational transformation that emerge from materialist forms of social and economic theory and analysis.

Fighting for preservation
I think that Coetzee is right to be pessimistic regarding the hope that humanities academics will rise up and fight for the preservation of the university, defending it from the forces that threaten to take away its former integrity and turn it into something other than itself, a university in name only.

But the idea of the university here defended seems to be distinctly idealistic, even utopian. 

First, in the age of digital information, the idea that the university still maintains its vaunted position as knowledge creator and defender of intellectual values is starting to feel threadbare. Now you can walk around writing and texting your research at the corner coffee shop. You have instant access to all the online libraries on the planet and, given all those free gigabytes of storage, the Library of Congress stored on your iPhone. This includes that part of this library reserved for the storage of everything ever tweeted. 

Second, academics do not necessarily — as if by definition — align themselves with high academic values, such as the crucial one of academic freedom. The real interests of academics are often far more basic; indeed, some might suggest that they are often surprisingly shallow. 

It is hard to think of a defence of the university's integrity and academic freedom having real persuasive power unless it is linked to and incorporated in a broader social critique that would insist on a widening of the debate and the struggle. This is because what is happening to the universities is a key part of a strategy or set of strategies whose aim is social power and control, and whose scope is much larger than higher education alone. 

This means that the defence of the university cannot be separated from the defence of the media and of the internet, which seems about to become subject to corporate and government control. Even though the university is important and perhaps a special case, talking about the "transformation of universities" as a code phrase for political control helps us to see that what universities are experiencing is a symptom or part of something much wider.

A controlling of citizenries
I would characterise this wider context as a global drive whose aim is nothing less than a controlling of citizenries through a process of dumbing down that is expressive of the anxieties of power elites (in both politics and industry) over the political uses that may be made of knowledge.

In Coetzee's appraisal of Higgins's book, I sense an interplay between two positions or discourses that are not entirely the same and may not be as consistent or as compatible as he believes to be the case. 

Further, these two discourses are the product of what I suspect may be two identities: Coetzee the literary-academic luminary, concerned primarily about "value", and Coetzee the writer, something of an anti-authoritarian rebel, concerned about power and control, as his writings on censorship attest. 

Of all the disciplines in the humanities that might be rallied around the banner of the defence of academic freedom, literary studies would not be the one in the vanguard. It is no longer possible to teach literary texts based on the premise that they interrogate the world — that they are able to cast a different, sometimes radical, interpretative light on our everyday world. 

These days the established theories in the study of literature argue that textual meanings are plural, and can shift and change dependent on their contexts and conditions of reception and reproduction, by which we refer to the different uses that readers make of texts. 

It follows that the possibility that texts can address, let alone intervene in, the social and political world we inhabit is subject to different kinds of mediation. This puts the interpreter of these texts in a far more powerful discursive position in relation to their meanings and the "knowledge" that they contain.

The problem of power
So I think it is Coetzee the writer we should be listening to here; it is the problem of power that must take precedence, however deeply vested in value we may be. As history has shown, power has always turned against knowledge that lies outside its ambit and is alien to its orthodoxies. And it is hard not to think of university transformation being about power: the power to shape what is taught and thus what is thought. 

In his piece, Coetzee characterises academic resistance to the thin edge of the process of transformation as mere "sniping" at the excesses of the new corporate style in which universities are managed.

It is a nice satirical touch, but fails to capture the irony that academics, one might say of all people, are not fully able to comprehend the process that they are part of and subject to, and realise how it fits into a bigger picture. 

The corporatisation (or corporate colonisation) of the university was brilliantly analysed by the late Edward Said. In his essay Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Communities, he argued that "humanistic culture in general has acted in tacit compliance with the antidemocratic view that the general public is best left ignorant and questions affecting human existence are best left to 'experts'". 

It is now that some academics —those who, like Higgins and Coetzee, cherish the idea and ideal of academic freedom — are beginning to see how high a price was paid for this "tacit compliance".

Following the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, Said's position draws a clear distinction, in terms of contrasting social roles and power allegiances, between academics and intellectuals. 

Academic depoliticisation
The current reshaping of universities seems (in some areas and in some senses at least) to be elevating the idea of the academic, but what is happening in reality is that there is an absolute effort to detach the idea of academic from that of intellectual, as part of a process of academic depoliticisation. 

Intellectuals are now becoming if not a threatened, then a dislocated species, perhaps best defined as that category of social thinker that society is doing its best to render obsolete.

Metaphorically and conceptually, the exclusion of the intellectual has depended on a restructuring of academic time and space — such that the former can be constantly measured, and the latter can be controlled and contained. Hence the ever-increasing emphasis on the key importance of academic productivity (measured outputs) in order for institutions and individuals within them to become "viable" (which means, in order for them to keep their identities). 

The changes in logics and discourses may have been subtle before, but now they are dominant and the differences are clear. Where academic freedom was once an end in itself, now academic research is an end in itself — an output largely measured without reference to the intellectual context within which it was produced and the intellectual "progress" to which it adds. 

Citations are now the only index to value. Multiply output in accredited journals by number of citations and you now have a convenient (for which read "absolute") index of an academic's ability and worth — in other words, of how much he or she is a true academic. 

So opposing structural and other changes are now a distraction from the kind of industry that true academics should continue to be engaged in. 

Finding an appropriate discourse
The changes that have happened make it more difficult for academics to think outside of the box, to find a discourse with which to critique what is happening on their campuses and in their departments.

The only viable defence of the university is one grounded in an idea of its role in society as a force contrary to power elites and dominant orthodoxies, and is expressed as an active rather than a static defence (to employ military metaphor), one that engages with the premises of the producers of blueprints and recipes in a radical and ideologically confrontational way. 

Otherwise, we are going to follow a logic of change that will produce something that fits in beautifully with our corporate-capitalist view of the world and is there to service its strategic objectives, however narrowly they may be conceived and however alien they are to what we need to teach ourselves and our future generations about what it is to be human and what is important in our history (and histories), our art, our music and our literature. 

We should not leave this to the writers of dystopian fiction and voices crying out in an ever-increasing wilderness.

What we should be arguing, following Said, is for the notion of a community in which the university plays an integral part directly related to the participative democracy towards which we all need to strive as a positive ideal. 

This is in line with Coetzee's and Higgins's stressing the need for a "critically literate citizenry".

And here Jürgen Habermas's notion of the public sphere seems most apposite as a basis for the engendering and continued fostering of what I suggest we could think of as a popular, collective kind of intellectualism, relevant to all the most basic and also deepest human issues of our time. Without this, universities will be picked off like the sitting ducks they are.

Professor Damian Garside is a member of the department of communication on the Mahikeng campus of North West University

Originally published in: Getting Ahead

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