To Edward Snowden,
who heroized criticism from the inside
Destined to forge ahead by gobbling up its pasts, and refusing to unravel its mediocre web by night, this world grows unpoetic by the day. Once universities resisted the world’s chaotic sameness and were called upon to split it and restore order by ruling over it: theologically, rationally, poetically. No more! Neoliberal universities now go along with the BAU principle and practice (the business as usual that builds many consumers and some marketers). The unthinking that marks both the mindlessness of this process, and love, may be viewed as the link between the unpoetic present and an exciting future for the academe.
Both the university and the hermeneutical machines associated with it in the West have gone through some considerable changes during the past century. From the viewpoint of the humanities, especially of comparative literature and critical theory, this led to the present state, in which the hermeneutics practised in the humanities are allowed to survive as passable yet misplaced, and by and large marginal exercises of service to other areas of—applied and thus justified—knowledge. Unless these hermeneutics don’t present both their methodological protocols and their application, they can hardly justify themselves on the institutional front. Yet, they are interpellated to keep on justifying themselves—in counter-aesthetic, pedagogically neutral and proactive, lawyer-like, accountant-like, manager-like tones—as good business. This state smacks of a crisis, whose assertive moves let out the ironic scent one senses at the end of the road. Both edges of irony—the alarmist and the cynical—will be involved in what follows here. Before turning doubly ironic, the following is doubly problematic in the sense in which it both tracks down a problem and attempts to sort it out schematically; problematically, that is, in this age of slackening attention to theory, where buzz and sophistry are taking over the foreground of display—from A to Z, and from Agamben to Žižek.
So, the university. For the past century since the end of Old Europe around WWI, the university has attempted to survive the death of the ideal of Kultur. There are three forms of dialogue that the university entertained with this loss: the positive dialogue drawn from Benjamin and Bakhtin (and also Buber, Jaspers, Levinas…); the maintenance of difference as the dominant dialogue of the postmodern post-WWII half-century; and a dialogue of the deaf in the new millennium, or at least since 9/11.
One would not be dead wrong to divide this century into three periods, with their respective ruptures, points of dialogue, betrayal, and excess. When something turns excessive, it is ready to get caught in a definition. So are we.
So, the university of nachKultur of the 20s and 30s was followed by the afterModern university (also called the university of excellence) of post-WWII and, recently, by the university of quantity. All three are stages of a progressive renunciation of positive conceptuality. In search of clarity, a few things about these three schematic periods:
The university of nachKultur, like the university of all times, caught up late with the drama of its own period—in this case, the drama of the alienation produced by mass culture, the strides of the right, the shining limps of the left, and the ruining of classical education. The clear minds of the period found their unrest on the outside or the outskirts of this institution—Thomas Mann (the late carrier of Kultur), and the Bs—Walter Benjamin and Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin. To the weakening of the link between experience and expression there corresponded not only the elegiac tone of Mann and Benjamin, but also their opposite, Heidegger’s jargon of authenticity. Those times bent on lived experience, on Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship, on Bakhtinian dialogism, are predicated on the less and less recent loss of wholeness, which, in retrospect, appears to pit an ex post facto utopia to the increasing signs of present-day dystopia. Against the deadly organimism championed by Fascism as the Führersprinzip, the likes of Thomas Mann and Benjamin erected the melancholy Dürersprinzip. As the university of nachKultur was drifting away from the study of classical instruction, it also came to deplore that drift and present it as “a sign of the times”—as if it couldn’t do otherwise. This stage in the abandonment of positive conceptuality would correspond to the suspicion—with some instances of radical critique—in the good will and sense of positive conceptuality. Adorno’s critique of the nominalist becoming of the concept, from Enlightenment to Hitler, may be invoked as the paradigmatic figure of the times. It is in this sense that the university of nachKultur is a post-Enlightenment articulation. One remembers that, for Kant, die Aufklärung is an exit from immaturity. There is Enlightenment where the universal, the free, and the public uses of reason are superimposed on one another. Foucault’s “What Is Enlightenment” reads Kant’s homonymous text as a retrospective proposition made “to Frederick II, in scarcely veiled terms, a sort of contract—what might be called the contract of rational despotism with free reason: the public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason.” (36)
What later Kant approached as the conflict of the faculties was resolved by the institutionalization of the faculty of philosophy as the spiritual leader of the modern university (we still give out Ph.Ds, after all). The weakening of the Kantian model of rational or, in his sense, spiritual dominance is, to say the least, contemporary with what Adorno called the excess of modern nominalism—the rupture of the practice of domination through the concept from the ability from naming it, thus mastering it. In this view, Heidegger’s 1933 Rektoratsrede (The Freiburg University Presidential Address, which he delivered upon his installation as Rektor), in which the philosopher is called upon to lead spiritually the mass of students as much as the Führer is called upon to lead the people, would be the logical excess of an Enlightenment gone to the end of its mission. Both the Philosopher Rektor and the Führer appear as ‘natural’ emanations of the people brought about to lead the people (the Rektorsprinzip was thus brought in line with the Führersprinzip). Yet Heidegger’s Nazi university was not the end of the University of nachKultur—but rather a dark intermezzo unto that end, which showed that legitimizing the murder of difference was the quickest critique of the concept. Kant’s contract of reason had Prince and People bound to underwrite a lasting covenant, whose superior expression was the modern, Humboldtian University. It wasn’t Heidegger who ended this project and its melancholy lingering in the interwar world: it was the impersonal shape that both world and university came to share. Stalin, Hitler, Hiroshima, and New Criticism were the ultimate gravediggers of the University of nachKultur and its nostalgic dialogue with the pre-WWI old world. Much ado about you? Not anymore!
The university of excellence, or, more appropriately, the afterModern university, names the second phase in the deconceptualization that brought this institution in the organized mess we linger through nowadays. Its leading thinkers were no longer (dis)located outside the university walls. Roland Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze, de Man, Derrida were all profs, themselves institutionalized. The champions of the afterModern university are also heroes of depersonalization. The Romantic tinge attached to the unattached Benjamin and Bakhtin gave way, in the after-WWII, to the ethically hardly tenable position of the ‘critic from the inside’. The dialogic form that compensates for its anti-(or post-)humanism is one of difference maintenance.
To Baudelaire modernity was not only the fleeting and contingent, but the will to “heroize” the present. The modern artist would do that by finding the proper, lasting expression of what will stay forever fleeting. The afterModern university went through its structuralist sanctums where the meta was both mega and omega, and especially through its deconstructive phase, whose representatives were rich enough to pay attention, but not more.
To the afterModern university of the recent decades (e.g. Bill Readings’ 1996 The University in Ruins), there corresponded a postmodern, half-serious melancholy for the previous age. The backward gaze of the humanities’ text & language-based ideologies was justified by their progressive marginalization within the half-corporate make up of Western universities. Kant redivivus would have a saddening head rush upon seeing his world upside down.
As the new millennium kicked in with the 9/11 bang, we seem to have entered an excessive stage of the afterModern university: that of the university of quantity. The ten years of talk of globalization after George Bush Father launched that ‘concept’ were followed by another fifteen years of talk of global terror, after George Bush, Jr. mounted the victory of Texas over New York. After the nostalgia for past constructions and the cold enthusiasm for deconstructions, 9/11 clustered fakestructions which gave, before our blind eyes, more massive shows than that dancing bullet which killed JFK. The university of quantity followed suit: devoid of conceptual powers, ready to be drawn into whatever scenario was hardened into truth by the powers that be, our contemporary university, instead of getting out of CIA- and Hollywood-sponsored Weltanschauungen and derided ‘conspiracy theories,’ used them, kinda mistrusted them, and went along. When the university criticized them, it did so delicately, almost imperceptibly.
Such a progressive mistrust in the concept thinned out the subject of knowledge along two centuries and change. This thin subject is today’s darling of the university of quantity: lacking conviction, deriding courage as Quixotic, and relinquishing that right to free speech that the tenure system was meant to uphold. Surely, the students we teach will better follow in our footsteps.
What are the humanities to do across today’s dead calm? Surely, not to cultivate the garden of Kakademos, but rather deepen the chasm between itself and the surrounding amorality. The humanities must get serious at building the chasm, rather than keep justifying themselves for carrying across the greatest hits of history: the humanism that has long transformed itself into a new operetta fascism; the longing for a long dead Kultur; the logic-of-the-poor mourning of the age of high theory, which raised the intellect’s beat in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
In the loop of this day, big data is Big Daddy: if you don’t buy big data, you are not. After all, the age of quantity’s choice is “to buy, or not to be.” On this planet of the apps we bring scented flowers to the Tomb of the Unknown Shopper. But we are too small to even contemplate a critique of the university at large, as the afterModerns did from within and the nachKulturnics from without. The search for liberty, the liberty to search first and foremost, rather than research how to get money from outside the university, how to get more students (now the only criterion for budgeting our institutions) should not be stranded by its own impatience. As much as Snowden is stranded today in the chasm between the nations—Snowden, the global hero.
After Thomas Mann the modern and Paul de Man the afterModern, the Snowden man is the hero of the age, of the geeks, of quantities, of big data: the critic from within who, with Baudelairean heroics, displayed a selflessness and a decency that, they alone, endanger the massive coziness of the times. Snowden interrupted, even if for a moment, the business of the NSA, CIA, etc.’s control over citizens, states, companies, and so on. It is in this interruption that we may glimpse the art of unthinking: unthinking of you as taking out the I. This unthought ‘you’ is the new subject of hermeneutics, which is to be found as far from the classical narcissistic object-cum-subject as imagination can fathom. What used to be the origin/end — Kant’s I/object — has gone through a currently entire circle of transformations. Controlling agency can be opposed mostly by unthinking, by that interruptive technique that brings the ‘you’ as a poetic space within the very battlefield. Thus, the poetic texts that the university of quantity are supposed to ignore must be brought into focus, as present acts of polemics. Their hermeneutics are of present experiences, rather than past; in that, they are decisive and will lead the interpreter away from philosophy into erosophy (more about this elsewhere).
I call Snowden a master of unthinking and dedicate to him this text.