July 13, 2003

the nihilism of academe

I have been meaning to write about this article----The Flight from Knowing by Lisa Ruddick---ever since I came across it courtesy of Invisible Adjunct and Amanda at Household Opera.

Its taken a couple of days since real life has intervened.

Lisa Ruddick has raised an important issue. From my Nietzschean perspective she is describing nihilism in the everyday practices of academe in the corporate university. The values of the humanities----the human in the humanities as Invisible Adjunct puts it---- have been hollowed out. It links in with a previous post of mine.

Let me spell out the argument. Lisa starts her article by saying that after 9/11 a question presses in on her and her students. It is:

"...how to bridge the chasm between the syllabus--whatever it contains--and the students who are looking for help in figuring out how to sustain a humane connection to a world that’s overwhelming them....and I feel as if I'm in two different worlds. For years, scholarship in English has been refining the art of stepping away from humane connection.... Maybe some percentage of you will identify with the experience of a recent Ph.D. from my department... who told me that since the terrorist attacks she’s found less comfort than she expected in working on her book project, and confessed that right now she can't blame the people who look at our discipline and say, "What's the point? If you're not getting at anything that sustains people, what's the point?"

Well, academia has become divorced from everyday life. No news there. The whole point of the liberal (Kantian) university)-- was that was a retreat from the hurly burly of daily life to a haven, where you could reflect about things for 3-4 years on a scholarship. Nice work if you can get it, many would say. And it is. Or rather, was.

But you can draw the drawbridge up and cut yourself, as a scholar, off from everyday life. Academia then becomes a world unto its own. Then you do wonder about the point of writing articles and books that no else reads. I did. The old answer that you are doing it for its sake is not very satisfying. It left you, well unsatisfied. That gnaws away inside. It is deeply troubling.

Some conservatives are appalled at the topics of reflection in the humanities (ie., cultural studies) compared to solid business topics. Thus Miranda Devine ignores the attempts by the new humanities to return to everyday life. The conservatives basically mock and jeer at the fashionable thesis topics, and they use this to launch their attacks on the academic left as part of the culture wars.

Let's put the attack on postmodernism and poststructuralist theory in the academy to one side. Lisa is talking about something much more interesting: a deep disquiet in academia about the effects of nihilism. Lisa is referring to her experience of:

"People who feel unnourished by the intellectual life in English tend to feel isolated because the myriad individual expressions of protest that are confidentially exchanged all the time have not yet been built into a shared world. The tensions within our field have reached the [point of] a clear cleavage between a traditionally humanist right and an antihumanist left...In the middle, but without a base, are people like this woman who are not traditionalists but nonetheless have convictions about "what sustains people" that in the current environment would be discounted as conservative, humanist illusions."

Invisible Adjunct concurs. She identifies herself as occupying the uneasy middle ground of a liberal humanist in the humanities.

What Lisa then describes are the characteritistic of standard conduct in the corporate university: the violence of everyday practice in academia; the subtle insensitivities hardwired into theory; the subtle depreciation of whatever makes you a human being as opposed to an expert; the fear and defensiveness from attack; academic brainwashing into profressional norms and practices, the need to deprogramme and the threat of ostracism by the group.

Lisa says that the effect of what I would call the workings of knowledge/power is a:

"... kind of demoralization, because in their depletion of the meaning of such words as authenticity and humanity they eat away at a person's sense of having a vital interior life apart from his or her professional identity."

Rightly said. In the corporate university we do become teaching, research and writing machines on a career treadmill and workign under exploitative conditions. That career treadmill becomes the whole ethos of academic existence in the corporate university--it defiens our existence--- and it deeply impacts on our subjectivities. Lisa expresses this experience of being the "cog in the machine much more poetically. She says that academic life, in a depressed job market, has become:

"...a world with no experiential outside... The message we send to [our students] is: there's no real authenticity anywhere, there's no humanity you can count on, the moon outside your window is boring, so you might as well keep to your study and pray for a job."

It's a demoralizing treadmill behind the ivy clad walls. But we all know that and understand that it is widespread and not just limited to the humanities. As Lisa says the:

"...systematic demoralization is a hidden feature of professional training, maybe everywhere [in academia] though each field develops its own mechanisms for inducing this demoralization."

In commenting on this article Invisible Adjunct in her post addreses the ethical implications of nihilism. She writes:

"The demoralization of which [Lisa] speaks refers not only to a weakening of morale, but also to a depletion of the possibilities for creating and sustaining morally significant meaning."

Nihilism has well and truely taken hold. Nihilism is more than the humanist values and meaning being hollowed out by knowledge/power in the corporate university, and so creating that uncanny sense of a moral vacuum within academia. What is also being displaced, repressed and forgotten is ethical judgment----there is a withering of our capacity to judge that this particular kind of conduct is right or wrong.

I have described the argument at length because it is a good description of the workings of nihilism. It means that the 'scholar as vocation. ethos of the Kantian university has been hollowed out. Invisible Adjunct can see no reason to be optimistic about the process of nihilism currently being experienced in the academy. Nearly all her posts indicate the deepening of the process whereby the experience of "slowly dying inside" is the effect of the workings professional academia practices.

What we have is the description of the effects of the workings of what Foucault called the microphysics of power.

So where to next with nihilism? If the sickness has been diagnosed, then what is the cure. What suggestions have been made to recover a moral sense and the capacity to make ethical judgements?

What is suprising about the academic discussion around Lisa Ruddick's article is that those in the middle ground---the liberal humanists experiencing the hollowing out of liberal humanism---remains at the level of describing the process of hollowing out. What is not considered is the responses to what Invisible Adjunct calls the "depletion of the possibilities for creating and sustaining morally significant meaning."

Let's put Nietzsche to one side for the moment. What is not picked up, or considered, is the reworking of liberal humanism by philosophers such as Richard Rorty, even though a lot of the discussion around Invisible Adjunct's weblog is about the search for autonomy in academia.

Why Rorty? Well, Rorty took the anti-foundationalist and anti-representationist turn in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. iIn Contingency, Irony and Solidarity he used the liberal private/public distinction to say that concerns about our "vital interior life apart from our professional identity" belong to the private realm of self-realisation, fulfilment, and perfectionism and not the public domain of morality and justice. He says argues that this distinction allows a postmodern liberal society to limit its concerns to the balancing of freedom, wealth, and peace, whilst allowing its members the scope and opportunity to pursue their own ideas of how they ought to live.

Why this limit? Well, Rorty argues that any attempt at a fusion of the private and public tends to privilege the public over the private. It either redefines the private in terms of the public - and generally suppress many private practices - or it makes public the private practice of the strong or the majority.

Something to engage with don't you think? But these themes are not taken up in the discussion. There is a resounding silence about Rorty, even though he is America's most successful public philosopher.

What happens is that the finger is pointed at poststructuralist theory of the academic left. Timothy Burke expresses this eloquently and accurately. Yet, the rejection of the elitist poststructuralist academic practices is done without any consideration of the postmodern turn to ethics. A whole body of continental writing is rejected on the basis of academic habits and practices.

What is disturbing is that there is no consideration of Foucault's return to classical Greek philosophy, his exploration of the roots of the 'care for self', or his aesthetic refashioning of this care for self into shaping our subjectivities as if they were a work of art. If you want to put it the liberal humanist terms of Lisa Ruddick, it is learning to shape one's own inner character or subjectivity with the qualification that such shaping takes place within various forms of power-knowledge and involves a transgressions of its limits.

It is a form of Stoic ethics of working on the self to remove the poisons that make us sick. What the Stoic's address is the form of therapy for the elitist academic practices that Timothy Burke describes as poisons. It is self-government of the soul. The Stoics claim that there is a philosophical art of soul-healing; and that if these afflictions are not cured then, there will be no end to the sickess pointed to by Lisa, Invisible Adjunct and Timothy.

As Dave Kelly over at Stoic News writes:

"The practice of Stoicism requires a commitment to changing bad habits, or vices, into good habits, or virtues, and a discipline to make it happen."

The key Dave says is to make new habits of thought and action. In this tradition philosophy is a compassionate doctor ministering to human needs.

Focuacult gives this philosophy as a way of life his own twist. He writes in What is Enlightenment:

"The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered…[as] a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them."

We become our own doctors. As with the classical Stoic tradition of compassionate doctoring there is a commitment to reason powers of each person and a radical criticsm of conventional beliefs.

Since Foucault "fuses" public and private domains in a way that Rorty would oppose, we have a debate about the limits of liberalism and the reasons for transgressing them. We have an ongoing debate about political language, the humanites and ethics since the 1990s.

What suprises me is the way the academics have not turned to this literature in order to explicate the nihilism/ethics problem they are experiencing.

Why? Surely they know this literature. Surely they know Foucault and Rorty? Or the way Rorty has Americanized French theory? Or Rorty's rejection the unpalatable bits of the Nietzsche & Heidgger challenge to liberal democracy-American style.

So why no engagement with Rorty?

Let us return to Nietzsche. Is it a case of the academics not knowing Nietzsche, in spite of Allan Bloom's warnings in his The Closing of the American Mind about the terrors of German philosophy? And why we are on it why no Allan Bloom? Did he not a diagnosis of the intellectual and moral ills of contemporary American and the academy. Did he not make some suggestions for a cure? Did not Bloom argue that political philosophy was about life and death issues?

So why no engagement with Bloom?

Bloom is one American who did understand what Nietzsche was getting at with nihilism, understood the easy going ethical relativist response to nihilism amongst students, and grasped the decay of the modern university.

So why no Bloom.

It is this failure to intellectually engage that I find most disturbing. So here's a thought. The modern university always saw itself as the strong hold of culture and cvilization and deeply connected to the Republic of Letter. It stood like a beacon in the wasteland of society, resolutely protecting scholarly tradition, knowledge, learning from the barabarians, philstines and vandals.

Is this case? Is civilization and culture to be found in the "best" universities? Maybe it has moved on? Should we continue to respect the modern university as being something more than an educational corporation? Should we b not treat it as just another way of doing business and be sceptical about its claims to be the guardian of culture and civilization.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 13, 2003 05:40 PM | TrackBack

One think that startles me about the university is that there is apparently no concept of a general or a common culture. Everyone feels obligated to know everything peculiar to their specialty and nothing else whatever. In some cases there's actual pride in ignorance -- e.g. analytic philosophers who really don't think that there's any need to know about Aristotle, psychologists whose whole intellectual formation is limited to the last 10-15 years of "the field", economists who know no economic history or political economy, etc.

I'm not proposing that a "canon" should be imposed, just that everyone should feel the need and obligation to have some breadth and depth of knowledge, and should expect the same of others.

Formalized and enforced disciplinary and methodological definitions are big culprits, and this is now bureaucratized and tied to hiring. And as I understand, most grad schools tell people what books not to read.

Posted by: Zizka on July 14, 2003 11:04 AM

Gary, you raised some interesting points about Allan Bloom’s "The Closing of the American Mind" –so I’ve done a bit a research around it.

Point One

Bloom’s book (like Joyce’s “Ulysses” – and, of course, there’s an inner irony there) is the Great Unread Work – at least compared to the volume of writing and talking around it (Disclaimer 1: someone else has previously made this Great Unread claim: http://www.scottlondon.com/reviews/jacoby.html ). Disclaimer 2: I haven’t read “Closing”, either.

Point Two

Right or wrongly, “Closing” is often lumped with (two later works) Dinesh D'Souza’s Illiberal Education” and Roger Kimball’s “Tenured Radicals”. While I have also not read either of the latter, I know enough about them to fairly confidently call them simplistic diatribes. I strongly suspect, however, that Gary would not apply such a label to Bloom’s book.

Here, it is definitely unfair to post-hoc judge a book by the company of its shelf-neighbours – all the more so because of Point One. Nonetheless, my feelings are that Bloom must have been naïve to have not foreseen (or at least quickly realized soon after the 1987 publication of “Closing”) that he had opened a Pandora’s Box. In a nutshell, 1987, or soon after, was when the loaded, hair-trigger term "political correctness" started spreading like wildfire.

Point Three

In 1988, when I was a mid-course undergraduate, I became strongly politicised. Around a main issue, funnily enough, of the government-mandated destruction of the (Australian) higher education system – a thing clearly inspired by the policies of Reagan and Thatcher, only being implemented by a Labor government in Australia.

In hindsight, we were naïve in thinking that the imposition of a New Right (as it was called in those days) template on universities could be successfully opposed and overcome by protest (rallies, sit-ins, letter-writings, petitions, media releases etc) alone. We were young and idealistic. More culpably – when it came to our naiveté – we believed in the myths of 1968; in particularly, we trusted no one too much older and/or in a position of authority. This may sound self-evidently farcical now, but it wasn’t at the time – though young, we had the collective intellectual gravitas to convince ourselves of the efficacy of a self-propulsion only approach.

And in any case, when it came to our core “business”, there were no role models or mentors available. Even if Bloom’s book, published in 1987, had somehow been received in the academy mostly free of inflammation, our belief (then) in the myths of 1968 would have over-ridden the (I’m presuming) convergence in our agendas.

In summary, “Closing” could not have been worse-timed. Without Bloom (or anyone else) explicitly and convincingly dismantling the myths of 1968 for a Gen X readership, my generation petered out of the main game. Inside and outside the academy – and let’s face it, it’s a long time since there’s been a meaningful difference – things just got steadily worse. Not that this fact sunk in real-time; for a few years we were in denial, acting like a gambler chasing their losses. Only from the mid-90s, and simply through observing the sheer cultural and economic inequality between baby boomers and Gen X, did the realisation dawn: whatever 1968 meant, achieved etc, it didn’t matter the tiniest piece of dirt any more.

The New Right were indeed clever, then. By making universities the first site of privatisation (or management buy-out if you prefer; in most cases they end up being the same thing), the Right allowed the smartest among us to think that we were nipping something in the bud (as far as society generally went) and that we had the strategic advantage of fighting on our own home turf, as far as the local battle was concerned.

Which nutshell, I suspect, was a long way from anything that Bloom said, or even thought about. And if you’re talking about whose naiveté was more culpable, the answer is simple – age before beauty.

Posted by: Paul Watson on July 14, 2003 06:16 PM

yes the pride in ignorance is astounding for those who say they are intellectuals.

I was also told about lots of books not to read---Nietzsche & Heidegger etc when at grad school.

Alas, the general knowledge that you mention is very rare in the academy these days. It is very disciplinary bound and very difficult to get cross disciplinary conversations going.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 15, 2003 10:37 AM


I have read Bloom's text. I thought that it was very clear in articulating the concerns of conservatism. I read it as being very much in the spirit of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution. I saw it as a key text and was puzzled why it died when it gave a lot of depth to the cultural wars.

I fully concur with your remarks about Generation X vis-a-vis the baby boomers----the former have had a very rough deal. They are a generation who have been treated as waste product by the university system.

And you are right to put your finger on why that happened. The neoliberals. The free marketeers are the cultural revolutionaries of our time: the white guards if you like.

And those in the university never really took them seriously: that they would radically transform ---ie., re-engineer---the liberal university into a business corporation, dump most of the academic values into the garbage can and replace it with excellence and entrepreneurship.

1968 and the long march throught institutions by the 1968ers had been blocked, reversed and rolled back. Of course many of the 1968ers where fully engaged in rolling back. They had been mugged by reality and become quite inhuman and mean spirited. They enjoyed humiliating the academic left.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 17, 2003 10:10 AM

Do you know if LIsa Ruddick's new book on University Culture has been published?

Posted by: Monica on December 4, 2003 12:50 AM
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