My post on the ontology of academia seems to have been widely misunderstood. Indeed, this was so much the case that it pushed me to the brink of despair about blogging as a pursuit — a dynamic that people’s insistence on reading my descriptive account of the U.S. as a party state as a list of recommendations for reform only exacerbated. While there are external reasons (mainly faculty meetings) that the latter, written over two weeks ago, was my last substantive post for the blog, the sense that anything I wrote was going to be met with incomprehension did not encourage me to make time.
That being said, any misunderstanding is obviously at least partly the author’s own fault, and so I will try to get at what I was doing in the post. My goal was to try to isolate what it is that academics do that no one else does. What is their “product”? It can’t be learning, because everyone is learning all the time and in many ways. In the last analysis, what they produce is grades, which are then agglomerated into degrees. Their activity is fundamentally one of certification. Yes, it’s meant to be certification of knowledge, but we all know that the certification does not always correspond closely with knowledge.
I wanted to suggest that the certification aspect is ineradicable — no employer, no publisher, no one can know in detail all that another person knows and can do. To some degree or other, we all need to take someone’s word for it. Normally we’re not willing to take the person’s own word for it, and that’s where recommendations, etc., come in. From this perspective, university degrees serve as a very expensive and highly ritualized way of obtaining a certain widely-recognized, institutionalized form of recommendation. Further, the gap between certification and what it certifies — the room for undeserving people to get unearned certifications — is also ineradicable. If there were a way to rigorously guarantee that the person getting a certification had truly earned it, then there would be no need for a certification at all. The academic enterprise works in the tension between the pure act of certification and the knowledge that legitimates it.
Having isolated that, I wanted to give a different account of the crisis of academia than one normally sees. I said that the two pressures academia faces are either to become a meaningless free-floating form of certification that claims competence to assess literally every aspect of life or to attempt to get rid of the “dangerous supplement” of certification altogether and cut to the chase of knowledge itself. The two aspects of academia — its certification function and the knowledge that legitimates it — are coming apart, but at the same time trying to become identified with each other. The free-floating certification is a way of saying, “Since we have the power of certification, we must know and be able to judge everything.” Meanwhile, the attempt to cut to the chase wants to eliminate the gap between certification and what it certifies from the other direction, to equate the certification with the knowledge itself. The former is a metastasis of meaningless authority, while the latter represents an attempt to eliminate authority altogether — and with it any space for human judgment. It’s no accident that the advocates of collapsing certification into what it certifies are also hoping to make academia more responsive to market forces, which are fundamentally a mechanism for occluding all human freedom and responsibility.
In a sense, I could have called the post “Academia and Political Form,” since it in some way rearticulates the argument of Schmitt’s Roman Catholicism and Political Form in terms of academia. I don’t think that the university is eternal like the Roman Catholic Church claims to be — there is no external, divine guarantee of its authoritative status. I don’t want to perform a Schmittian short-circuit where I say, “Since authority is an ineradicable fact of human life, therefore we must preserve our particular existing form of authority at all costs.” And yet I would claim that something like the university may be worth preserving if we can do it, though here “preserving” necessarily means figuring out how to do things very differently from how they’re done now and probably how they’ve ever been done.
This was implicit at best in the post, but I also want to suggest — Agamben-style — that as the university breaks down, it’s not automatically going to open up the space for something new. It’s going to continue to metastasize and become more and more destructive. If we want an alternative, we have to think an alternative, and just meeting up at Barnes and Noble to talk about books does not strike me as a viable replacement plan. Creating our own little bubble alongside it is not going to stop the damage that the self-delegitimizing university has done and will continue to do — including the havoc it will inevitably unleash on our little bubble as well. (And, also Agamben-style, I don’t claim that my post includes immediate plans for action or sheds direct light on how to deal with adjunctification, the decline of tenure, student debt, etc.)
So that was what the post was about. I hope everyone found this informative and clarifying.