Long read

The inhospitable university (or the machine of knowledge and ignorance)

I receive seemingly endless notifications of cuts to university pay, to entitlements for sessional teachers (who are already hard-pressed to fulfil their pedagogical responsibilities to their students), to scandals about pay, misbehaviour, ‘cordial’ negotiations with the NTEU that seem to result in simply less-worse outcomes that are gradually eroded because the university is ‘hard-pressed’, ‘under pressure’, ‘experiencing financial difficulties’.

Everyone who wants anything of the university must tighten their belt – except, of course, the university itself. Meanwhile, the buildings go up like a city, as though there was no end to the funds the university has for expanding its space (I call it the ‘State of Architectural Exception’, after Giorgio Agamben, but that’s another essay), all the while sending students ‘online’ so that they don’t have to pay teachers anymore, don’t have the make a mess of the space. The space is not for just anyone; it is for the university itself, for the inhuman, private company to literally show its own power.

My inclination, as someone intermittently committed to what the institution of the university could possibly do or be, is to despair. Yet precisely that intermittent commitment forces me to feel otherwise; it makes me angry instead.

Sally Haslanger opens a 2008 paper called ‘Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy’ with ‘a deep well of rage inside of me.’ Why shouldn’t that be the start of such thinking? At least it is not the resigned melancholy; it preserves that kernel of thought that things might be better.



Recently, a new field of study has been invented: agnotology. It studies ignorance. Mostly, it studies the actual production of ignorance within the university itself. So disillusioned are academics with the very institution that is supposed to give them a place, they have taken to studying the opposite of what it claims to do. Imagine the normally glorifying press releases that universities send out to their students, alumni, employees and spruik to the world: New discovery, universities are the best at producing ignorance!

I want to go over a few points we all already know: universities are vast deserts for humans, designed to vacuum capital and produce robotic citizens committed to the techno-scientific program of society. They exploit just about everyone involved, so much so that it is hard to see the humans under those great crushing signs of university life: the concrete buildings, the over-the-top branding, the endless construction (as though the very purpose of the university were to build spaces that look like they should be useful for education); all emptied husks of the very things universities were (when?) meant to do (what? These questions stand insistently). They symbolise education in the way a man in a suit working in an office for a financial firm to sell imaginary things on an imaginary market to produce an imaginary rise in an invented scale is a symbol of humanity.

9781474279918Michelle Boulous Walker has noted these trends in her recent book Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution, describing ‘the pressing demands of time, efficiency and productivity [that] make it more and more difficult to adopt a contemplative or intense attitude toward our work.’ It is combined with the ‘creeping technological nature of today’s institutions’ that ‘reduces everything in its wake to a resource.’ Even the most interesting, the most beautiful, the most challenging thought can be turned into mere grist for the academic mill. Boulous Walker quotes Nietzsche: ‘the worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.’

Even where universities promise to harbour artists and writers, in an attempt to lay claim to the creative side of life, we all know they cannot help but manufacture mere professionalised versions of what they claim to teach. Elif Batuman argues against such programs as the much-debated MFA in her essay ‘Get a Real Degree’. They cannibalise so many literary ‘devices’, for instance, from the novels of the past, in order to dispense with those historical landmarks and invent some ‘original work’. Not quite ignorance, these programs are committed to ‘innocence’ with regard to tradition.

Batuman cannot help but aim at Mark McGurl’s celebration of the never-been-better excellent fiction produced by such programs: ‘Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent.’

McGurl makes the eternal mistake of replying to criticism, and merely confirms Batuman’s diagnosis of institutionalisation as a kind of defeat: ‘originality,’ he writes, ‘is to be found at the level of its patron institutions.’

Since those institutions are universities, what is produced is mostly cleverly recycled, disguised variations on past literature, dressed up to be sold and consumed by the publishing industry. And in the process, it digests ‘others’ like so many resources for the institution to claim as its own. It is, in other words, a monstrous reflection of the university as a whole brought to bear on the world of (creative) writing.

We all know that students are duped, sometimes, with sad irony, by their own legitimation: filling in surveys that tell them ways in which they will or won’t get a job as a result of finishing their course (that eternal search for ‘relevance’), then asking them how the course will help them get a job after their course. The university then passes on the complaint to lecturers and teachers that their students are not being fed ‘relevant’ information about how to survive in an inhospitable world.

Some succumb: here is your information, take it and get out so that I can do the research, write the papers, reproduce my profession (the labour on labour, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write, that renders both student and teacher convenient[ly invisible] to the university). Some resist: here is a way to think differently about a world that is inhospitable to our lives, so that you might go out with your lives and make the world more hospitable. For Boulous Walker it is the ‘pedagogical relation – between teacher and student – at the centre of the ethical revival’. This takes so much effort, and is so unenduringly discouraged, that most academics find themselves slowly sidelined. Thus we all know that universities are not the places for teaching to happen.

We all know that universities produce research like banks produce money. They hoard knowledge, turn it into the ignorance of the rest of society that they might better arbitrate from above. Organise it into disciplined shapes that do not touch for fear that the meeting of different types of knowledge might produce something new, uncategorisable, unassimilable to the corporate plot (‘A thought would be ignited.’). We know that research is conducted under the pressure to publish papers no-one will read, that make no difference to how anyone lives, never mind how anyone else conducts research, because there’s no time or money or space left to rethink things, or think through things that might actually be difficult in the first place.

No space or time for thought, in other words – that tricky and undefinable activity that never ceases to surpass the intentions of those who would like us to do what we are told. The university, we all know, seems to consist of a series of negatives to becoming anything resembling an educational institution.



To pause for thought briefly – and to record a stimulus for my anger at what has been lost, and hope for might still be possible – I read an interview with a well-regarded philosopher printed in the 1980s. Even then, this philosopher seemed hopeful that the university could be a place – even then with a great deal of difficulty – for philosophy and ‘thought’. What that would mean, however, is precisely antithetical to what the university has become, what it represents now.

Then, it was the place for reconsidering a whole tradition of thought, the place for coming up with a new way of writing. It was a place that sustained a life of thought precisely without the pressures of publishing, without the insistence on ‘knowledge production’ (that so ironically has produced agnotology), without the very schemes of modern life that make it so uninhabitable, so unliveable. It was also a place for teaching – not texts for the sake of information or conformity to the structures of existing life – but texts for the sake of their constant surprise, their constant unexpected claim that we change the way we think and live.

Thought, for this erstwhile professor of philosopher – call him Stanley Cavell, in interview with James Conant in The Senses of Stanley Cavell – like philosophy:

resists and questions not just professionalization but any standing settlement of human culture, say any institution. It equally resists and questions. I love that about it, that it its best, it is never going to be fully domesticable… Is the best place to teach philosophy a modern university as we know it? And my answer is that I don’t think it’s a perfect place to teach philosophy, construed in certain ways, but that no other institution I know is a perfect place to teach philosophy either… To the extent that philosophy is a scientific enterprise, then a university is a perfect place to teach philosophy because a university is a perfect pace to teach a scientific enterprise. [But] The problems of philosophy I care most about are as recurrent as human thought …

Cavell might be called unfashionably humanist. But isn’t there something to be said in this moment for the human, if only so that the human might better recognise their mutual vulnerability with not just each other, but the world, nature, animals, itself?

Senses of Stanley CavellCavell continues that ‘there is inherent in philosophy a certain drive to the inhuman, to a certain inhuman idea of intellectuality, or of completion, or of the systematic; and that exactly because it is a drive to the inhuman, it is somehow itself the most inescapably human of motivations.’ He goes onto frame the reduction of thought to a science as precisely the aspiration towards this inhumanity, a way of summing up the possibilities of thought that insists on their being measurable and quantitative. Similarly there’s something about reading texts just to get the idea of them that saps them of all joy and meaning. Or rather reduces their meaning to some piece of data that will fit into the tetris game of knowledge, and so we can learn our lesson that what we are is in fact awkwardly shaped blocks that must be moulded to fit our own small, rigidly defined space in the equally silly tetris game of life.

Thus, to return to Cavell, ‘philosophy raises questions which may be out of order in a classroom so conceived.’ By ‘out of order’ Cavell means misplaced in the enterprise of techno-scientific society, unsuited to making students – call them humans – conform to an inhospitable order. Indeed, Cavell explicitly claims to ask his students ‘to read and think about was incompatible with anything else they were asked, but it did seem to make their lives more difficult than they would otherwise be.’ (A dangerous experiment recently attempted.) Something about the thoughts and questions raised in the philosophical classroom destabilised these students, failed to make them suitable for consumption. Judith Butler relates walking in on a class given on Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil by the deconstructionist Paul de Man. ‘I felt myself quite literally lose a sense of groundedness,’ she writes. ‘I leaned against a railing to recover some sense of balance.’

Far from a failing or a falling, I see in this a possibility.



The modern university, for the most part, exists to reproduce itself in an ever-growing circle of absorption. What is taught at universities is, Boulous Walker argues, citing Pierre Hadot, ‘no longer a way of life or a form of life’ unless it is the form of a professor, which, looking around, is a life fought against the very institution that validates their credentials. Universities barely reproduce professors, so insistent and enthusiastic are they in evacuating all that is human – which is to say, all that is subversive and digressive – from their enterprise of knowledge in the service of money. Professors are more likely to discourage budding students, especially if they appear committed to some healthy, critical doubt regarding the institution.

Judith Butler thus writes, in ‘Can the Other of Philosophy Speak?’, that she herself was not ‘sure whether I wanted to be a philosopher, and I confess that I have never quite overcome that doubt’. Yet, she advises,

if you have a student who contemplates that bleak job market and says as well that he or she is not sure of the value of a philosophical career or, put differently, of being a philosophy, then you would, as a faculty member, no doubt, be very quick to direct this person to another corner of the market.

220px-Undoing_GenderThis contrarian, complex and elusive thinker is cornered into directing students to a ‘market’, as if that were the only way to organise ourselves, as if to have doubts about whether academia is a worthwhile enterprise were an unhealthy, pathological thing.

In fact, it is precisely at ‘this distance from the institutionalised life of philosophy’ that Butler finds ‘a vocation for me’. There are ways we can take up distance from, or have a different relation with the university too. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney make the incendiary claim that ‘The Only Possible Relationship to the University Today Is a Criminal One’. It is a sharp rebuke to those restorationists who look back to a golden age of universities – be it free education or the acceptance of the humanities as valuable – or reformists. Instead, the intellectual-as-criminal, the ‘subversive intellectual came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love’.

Moten and Harney’s diagnosis is acerbic. A narrative of hard work and merit has been established, so that junior faculty and graduate students do teaching for food (mostly literally, but also to ‘learn’ to teach, the burden falling awkwardly, paradoxically on the students to be their fodder). Such ‘food is therefore often mistakenly taken to be a stage, as if eventually, one should not teach for good … If teaching is successfully passed on, the stage is surpassed, and teaching is consigned to those who are known to remain in the stage.’ Teaching is consigned to the invisible and unwanted labour that universities must grant in order for there to be students, in order for there to be money, in order for there to be organisable and manageable knowledge, and money.

But, Moten and Harny ask, ‘what would it mean if teaching or rather what we might call ‘the beyond of teaching’ is precisely what one is asked to get beyond, to stop taking as sustenance?’ What if, in being asked to get over teaching as a developmental stage that like infants we must crawl over, we must stop asking for our food and start earning it? How far are we to let the university – like other corporations – model itself after the state? How will we stand in relation to the university then, that had seemed so benign – even benevolent – in providing food, then turned so hostile and inhospitable in asking that we provide it food, become its food, become the thing that feeds it?

Criminal. There is, for Moten and Harney, hope in the ‘life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back … a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood, and one cannot initiate the auto-interpellative torque that biopower subjection requires and rewards.’ In other words, our relation to the university could be both one of excess – producing the food, being the food of teaching – and constant failing to meet the demands it places on us. We share a passion for thought that goes beyond what the university can make food from, and in relishing that thought – a thought itself so far from the techno-science of capitalism – that we become useless to it, and go invisible, as though it were the superpower of invisibility.

We – the students, the postgraduates, the staff – must see ourselves as the problem we are to the university. We are the inconvenient soft matter that it must pass through in order to live. And to that end, we can be ceaselessly ‘inadequate’ to its goal of transforming us into such beings. Moten and Harney call for us to ‘abuse its hospitality’, since it will show us none. It cannot fully dispense with us, since ‘the university needs what she [the subversive intellectual] bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of all that, she disappears.’



Agnotology, that study of ignorance, exists in order to find and eliminate, like a super-efficient hazmat-suit-wearing cleaner, any trace of ignorance. It produces knowledge about ignorance, insisting that any excess or inadequacy must be eliminated and eradicated. But certain forms of ignorance persist like the insistent forms of excess that are produced when actual learning and actual teaching happen. These are forms of ignorance like doubt and uncertainty, ways of questioning the relation we might have to the body of knowledge that is fed to us. Such forms of ignorance are fugitive, failing to conform to the confines of commodifiable information, failing to be converted into useful knowledge.

Anahid Nersessian calls for a ‘literary agnotology’, whose ‘point is not to eliminate that disorder but to give it is place in a theory… to apologise for it, if by apologise we mean to celebrate.’ And Judith Butler, her place secure within the academy, if not precisely within philosophy, finds herself ending her essay with ‘good company and better wine’. Sure, we may enjoy our good company, for it persists within and beyond the confines of the university. But who, these days, can afford wine?


Image: Crowd / flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Scott Robinson is a PhD Candidate in philosophy at Monash University.

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