There are many different kinds of intelligence, and there will always be a few writers who don’t need to read Shakespeare in college, or game designers who don’t need economics courses to get rich. But a terrible narrowing of the mind and of mental experience is ongoing in our country, sometimes waved on by the very scientists who ought most of all to respect the mind’s powers. The philosopher Guillaume LeBlanc argues that philosophy should now understand itself as work performed on behalf of particular cultures and ecologies, producing a new ethos of the philosopher for whom the question of belonging to an ordinary world has become, not something to bracket or transcend, but centrally important. Understanding how ordinariness is produced, and critiquing self-evidence, remain crucial activities of cultural analysis, as does the defense of expertise; but it is not simply a matter of intellectuals going public. It is also a matter of experts deciphering the relationship of their work to the arts of thriving and surviving, and feeding the results of their analyses back into their work. And it is time to fight, not just for this or that way of thinking, but for the experience of mind itself, and its cultivation — for (the pleasures of) knowing, reasoning, investigating, analyzing, debating, loving, desiring, and reflecting.
~L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, "Living the Liberal Arts: An Argument for Embodied Learning Communities," in Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts
For a while now, since I was working on my dissertation in 2000-2001 [and in which I wanted to address the question of the future of the liberal arts in light of its many histories], I have been intensely interested in what is sometimes called "university studies," best described I think as critical self-reflections and public intellectual polemics on the state(s) of higher education by those who know it very well from firsthand experience, either as tenured professors, college administrators, adjunct instructors, and also graduate students (Aaron Bady springs most notably to mind in this latter category: see his collected writings at his zunguzungu blog at The New Inquiry), although occasionally critiques of the university also come from members of think tanks, mainstream journalism (cultural criticism), and the like. These reflections can be narrow-mindedly conservative (Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education spring to mind, as does David Horwitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America) or more progressively liberal [yes, I am biased], such as Marc Bousquet's How the University Works [addresses labor inequities in higher ed], Derek Bok's Universities in the Marketplace [addresses the commercialization of the university and its disciplines], Christopher Newfield's Unmaking the Public University [addresses the important subject of unequal access to higher ed for Americans as a result of conservative campaigns to thwart the university's democratizing functions], and Benjamin Ginsberg's The Fall of the Faculty [addresses the detriments to higher ed that have been caused by the rise of "all-administrative" universities], just to name some of the more notable examples of the past 10 or so years. As readers of this blog and/or any of my own published work know, I am highly partial to Bill Readings's The University in Ruins, not only for its highly trenchant critique of the ways in which the American university has become a "transnational bureaucratic corporation," thus disrupting and weakening the role of traditional humanistic disciplines, but also of how this ruinous situation might [perversely/positively] open new [utopic & post-historical] spaces "in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise," and "with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question." In this scenario, we would give up the idea of "culture" [conceptualized narrowly in relation to specific groups] and also static [and increasingly fragmented] disciplines, and even a kind of static inter-disciplinarity, in favor of an ever-shifting disciplinary structure that would continuously "hold open the question of whether and how thoughts fit together." One might argue [and I will] that Readings's ultimate hope for the "university in ruins" as a space in which the question of "being-together" and disciplinarity itself would be permanently entangled and left purposefully open and unsettled has never really been put into serious practice. It would be too open-ended, of course, too experimental, risky, and perhaps, non-practical [and really messy in terms of administration]. Which is not to say it can't be done.
A lot has happened since Readings' book was published [posthumously] in 1996 -- one could say that his critique was dead-accurate and that the "ruinous" situation he sketched, especially in terms of the university's corporate-managerial structure and the concomitant assaults on the humanities, has intensified, and since the financial crises of 2008 onward, the idea [long-held and long-valued] that the university should be an important public [and publicly-funded] concern, especially for its vital role in securing various forms of social egalitarianism and a broad-based meritocracy for the greatest numbers of persons possible [not to mention, in order to enhance cognitive and technical innovations of all varieties, for the pure advancement of knowledge and practices of "making," regardless of cost-based "outcomes"], no longer appears to be either viable or what might be termed a "common concern." All across the country, states are slashing university budgets and expecting institutions of higher ed to figure out more and more ways to "pay for themselves," and to be "profitable" [whatever that might mean -- MOOCs are one prominent and lamentable outcome of this type of thinking]. This may be an over-simplification [because I can't do justice to all of the myriad examples in this blog post], but let's just say that the foregoing state of affairs has led to all sorts of jockeying within the university today to both winnow down and/or eliminate disciplines that appear non-utilitarian or to dress up traditionally philosophical disciplines [such as literary studies] in more utilitarian clothing. In addition, protocols of oversight and "accountability" have intensified to the point of leaving faculty little time and room to actually do the work they were hired to do: teach and research and mentor, and direct & innovate their own curricula and disciplinary collaborations. Most harmful of all, and in direct proportion to the budget-slashing maneuvers of state legislatures [and the subsequent lack of progressive federal amelioration of such], tuition and student debt levels are at unsustainably crippling levels, and the ranks of tenure-track faculty have shrunk to something around 30% of all teaching positions [say "hello" to the thoroughgoing adjunctification of higher ed].
The university system in the state of California has represented an important battleground in this current situation, partly because the state's economic woes have been so severe since 2008 [and more importantly, because of Gov. Jerry Brown's and UC President Mark Yudof's dismantling of the UC Master Plan, whereby all eligible California citizens had been entitled to a place within the University of California, regardless of means], but also because the state has long been internationally admired for its public research institutions [their quality but also their broad access] and also has a long and enduring history of faculty and student activism on its behalf [see, for recent examples, Aaron Bady's "Bartleby in the University of California: The Social Life of Disobedience," Michael Meranze and Christopher Newfield's blog Remaking the University, Robert Samuels's blog Changing Universities, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, and I could go on -- there are so many examples, not to mention scores of organized protests, rallies, strikes, etc. over the past several years -- but I won't]. Aranye Fradenburg has long been an outspoken activist on behalf of the public humanities [and against administrative malfeasance in all of its guises], but she has been extremely busy since 2008 in helping to organize and lead critical and activist interventions within the UC system [she organized a faculty walkout at UC-Santa Barbara in 2009, has worked on behalf of the lecturers' union, UC-AFT, created "Saving UCSB," and among many other activities too numerous to mention here, is a tireless letter writer and public speaker on behalf of academic freedom, the value of the humanities, and the importance of open access to public higher ed]. Thus we are heartened to see that she has also devoted an entire monograph [an incredibly laborious venture] -- Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts -- to an insightful diagnosis of the various neoliberal and technocratic forces currently assailing and undermining the public university, and to a fierce polemic on behalf of the humanities as the critical site for fostering forms of artfulness critical to the future of our "being-together" in this world. And she has generously decided to publish it with a new start-up press, punctum books, because she agrees [thankfully, with all punctum authors and editors] that work within the humanities, and especially public intellectual work, needs to have the widest purchase possible upon the public commons and should not be kept locked behind corporatized paywalls. And in the spirit of collaboration that we certainly hold dear here at ITM [and also at BABEL], she has crafted the book to include "companion" essays from Donna Beth Ellard, Ruth Evans, Julie Orlemanski, and Daniel Remein [as well as a Preface by myself and an Afterword by Michael Snediker], so that the book is part-scholarly monograph, part-poetic-activist desiring-assemblage.
In some important respects, Staying Alive -- as a labor of public intellectual advocacy for the humanities -- does not represent a departure for Fradenburg's ouevre, although many in medieval studies [and beyond] associate her work primarily with Chaucer studies [especially in a certain psychoanalytic vein], and also, more broadly, with particular [and brilliant] theoretical explorations of historicism, psychoanalysis, sexuality, alterity/Otherness, temporality, and aesthetics [among other subjects]. But reading carefully, one can see that she has always been concerned with defining and valuing the work [and also the jouissance] of the liberal arts against the "order[s] of utility," with the important connections between [individual and group] desires and ethics, and with the connections between enjoyment, disciplin/arity, and the larger polis [indeed, her first book in 1991, City, Marriage, Tournament, attends to the latter]. In 1997 she published an essay in New Literary History, "'So that we may speak of them': Enjoying the Middle Ages," that she later expanded into the Epilogue for Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (2002). Perversely [or not], while many in medieval [especially, Chaucer] studies have plumbed and re-plumbed this book for its invaluable insights into Chaucer's literary oeuvre [and historicism, more broadly], when I was working on my dissertation in 2000, the only chapters I read were the Introduction ["Sacrifice in Theory"] and the Epilogue ["Some Thoughts on the Humanities: Enjoying the Middle Ages"], because they were germane to my own work at the time in trying to craft defenses of intellectual-historical studies. In this Epilogue, Fradenburg discusses the importance of resisting, from within the humanities [and medieval studies, more particularly], the "utilitarian rhetorics that sustain the jouissance of capitalism," and she urges us to
take up . . . the question of the jouissance of the academy, rather then assuming it is our task to discipline jouissance out of the academy. For one thing, we cannot discipline jouissance out of the academy, because discipline is always permeated with enjoyment. So why give ground on our enjoyment?
Why, indeed? In fact, in her more recent forays into cognitive studies, animal behavioral research, neuroscience, evolutionary theory, biosemiotics, and the like [and as evidenced in recent publications such as her "Living Chaucer" essay in Studies in the Age of Chaucer 37 (2011)], Fradenburg has amassed an incredible body of scientific and other evidence for why we should not only not "give ground" on this enjoyment [with all of its positive and negative implications -- i.e., enjoyment is a messy affair but no less necessary for life as a result], but also for the ways in which living itself is an art and the humanities provide the deepest reservoir of the [non-utilitarian, excessive, ornamental] artfulness so necessary, not just for surviving, but for thriving in this world. Contrary to recent polemics that simply urge the humanities to become more scientistic or technology-focused, to demonstrate their utility or even trophy their uselessness, Staying Alive does something remarkably different: it argues for the humanism of a new scientific paradigm based on complexity theory and holistic and ecological approaches to knowledge-making. It urges us to take the further step of realizing not only that we can promote and enhance neuroplastic connectivity and social-emotional cognition, but also that the humanities have always already been doing so. “Nature always exceeds itself in its expressivity” -- which is to say artfulness is necessary for adaptation and innovation, for forging rich and varied relationships with other minds, bodies and things, and thus, again, for thriving — whether in the boardroom or the art gallery, the biology lab or the recording studio, the alley or the playground, the book or the dream. Bringing together psychoanalysis, science, aesthetics, and premodern literarature (from Virgil to Chaucer to Shakespeare), Fradenburg offers a bracing polemic against the technocrats of higher education and a vibrant new vision for the humanities as both living art and new life science. For me, especially, the book matters because -- even if not overtly -- it takes up and further exemplifies the necessity of Bill Readings's vision of the university as a critical site for play, for non-utilitarian experimentation, for keeping knowledge unsettled, and where, in Readings's words, "thinking is a shared process without identity or unity."
What Fradenburg's new [forthcoming] book also demonstrates -- along with the important body of work known as "university studies" that her book will soon join -- is that those of us who work within the humanities must commit some of our most valuable resources [primarily, our always-encroached-upon time] to academic activism, whether through letter writing, blog polemics, organized protests and strikes, collectivist agitation and intervention, mutual aid initiatives, and books such as these. We cannot just "bide our time" within the university, hoping things will get better, or even assuming they will [all "storms" pass is what many people seem to believe]. We have to seize hold of the university -- as an institution, but also as a public trust -- as our concern, and we must be willing to fight for that concern. As Julie Orlemanski writes in her contribution to the volume, "An Army of Lovers,"
Academic-activist writings not only deliver dispatches from the numerous battlegrounds of higher education. They also call upon those who care to read them -- those who might defend the institutional homes of speculation, imagination, and historical understanding. These writings are the communiques that circulate within the "army of lovers" and also pass beyond them, to unpresupposed outposts and new readers. . . . mobilizing reflections about learning in the present.
Staying Alive will be available at the end of this month, but in the meantime, we have made available the first chapter, "Driving Education: A Crash Course," and Julie Orlemanski's response to that chapter, "An Army of Lovers," HERE:
- L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, "Driving Education: A Crash Course"
- Julie Orlemanski, "An Army of Lovers"
Please circulate widely [and you can see the full Table of Contents for the book HERE, at the punctum books website].
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