Friday, 28 September 2012

Lord, Make Me An Instrument...

The University's counterpoint to this year's rise in student fees so far involves a dramatic increase in what were already grotesquely numerous bureaucratic exercises. The student is now to be a "partner" in the delivery of his/her education, a reconceptualization that serves once again, to undermine the little that is left of lecturers' professionalism and authority, and conveniently to generate a whole swathe of new procedures and documents to make it real. We are not far now from an explicit acknowledgment of the situation that has been implicitly in place for some time: the student as "author" of his/her education.

But the total and utter meaninglessness of almost everything done by the University now is not at all the result of the University's having signed up to a disastrous goal - that of satisfying students. Nor is it the result of its continuing to fail to realize this goal despite the most cumbersome and humiliating of efforts to do so - the "student" is now constituted in part by a low-lying but persistent sense of dissatisfaction. No, the total and utter meaninglessness now of everything results from the fact that there is no goal, not even a wrongheaded one. The University thinks up new plans, demands greater accountability, looks for more transparency, sets new standards, and devises new opportunities...all as a kind of self-sustaining system which, while serving no end, is rather rapidly replacing all of the ends that the University used to serve. Research in any meaningful sense has all but disappeared, replaced by exhausting and exhaustive Research Exercise Frameworks and funding bids; teaching in any meaningful sense has disappeared into continual efforts to accord with constantly changing teaching standards and their measurement; and learning, well...you do the math.

The University, to this extent, has about it a kind of fascination, akin to what Tiqqun describes in respect of "The YoungGirl":
...fascinating in the same way as everything that expresses its being closed in upon itself, a mechanical self-sufficiency or an indifference to the observer; like an insect, an infant, a robot, or Foucault's pendulum.
Like some, if not all, of these instances of mechanical and indifferent self-sufficiency, however, fascination with the University is experienced best from a certain middle-distance. Up close, it just numbs the soul.

The orthodox philosophical move, over the past century or more, for those of the European tradition of course, has been to attempt to loosen what was perceived to be the very limiting and ideologically problematic hold over us, exercised by "instrumental reason": human intelligence, we have learnt and taught, is not simply a tool, which we must practice using skillfully so that it may bring about the ends to which it has been assigned; human intelligence is capable of deliberating upon the ends to which it ought to be assigned! We are not mere animals, we have learnt and taught, to be trained in the realization of certain goals; we are human beings capable of determining which goals we should attempt to realize! Of course, deliberation upon ends, determination of goals, is no science, we have gone on to learn and to teach...it requires time and thought, it requires dialogue and consideration, it will never result in any certainty and must always be prepared to revise its findings in the face of challenge and of change. But how much richer such thinking, how much more worthy of human beings, than the mere adding of two and two to arrive at a pre-assigned four! Instrumental reason, we have learnt and taught, has made machines out of men.

But times have changed. Now, in the midst of the University's furious activity, into which it would draw all in its jurisdiction, activity that was always all for nought, the idea that human intelligence might be raised up to serve some end, albeit formulaic and pre-given, seems like revolution! The idea that something might be done, or, which is as good, fail to be done, feels like the most radical thing of all. And all of that philosophical high-dudgeon over instrumentalism begins to leave a bad taste in the mouth...arguing as it does against the very thing that the University has gradually eradicated and for a kind of endless, circular process of inquiry that suddenly seems very familiar and more than a little fascinating...

As the University, so its student, who now cannot fail. The grade - fail - is almost completely anachronistic, assigned only when the institution is at a loss to know what to say. And even then, it is only ever a place-marker, a brief treading of water while the incessant splashing about the place begins all over again...

T.J. Clark's call for a reanimation of the experience of defeat is so much more than a piece of gloomy-sounding rhetoric. For, defeat, failure, implies that there were ends, however insignificant, that might have been met. This is why, as Clark says, the tragic perspective is not depressing. Tragedy - greatness come to nothing - presupposes greatness; failure - ends not met - presupposes ends. Oh Lord, in these times, make me an instrument of something...

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