The University in Ruins (Not)

The problem

Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard UP, 1996), the blurb:

It is no longer clear what role the University plays in society. The structure of the contemporary University is changing rapidly, and we have yet to understand what precisely these changes will mean. Is a new age dawning for the University, the renaissance of higher education under way? Or is the University in the twilight of its social function, the demise of higher education fast approaching?

We can answer such questions only if we look carefully at the different roles the University has played historically and then imagine how it might be possible to live, and to think, amid the ruins of the University. Tracing the roots of the modern American University in German philosophy and in the work of British thinkers such as Newman and Arnold, Bill Readings argues that historically the integrity of the modern University has been linked to the nation-state, which it has served by promoting and protecting the idea of a national culture. But now the nation-state is in decline, and national culture no longer needs to be either promoted or protected. Increasingly, universities are turning into transnational corporations, and the idea of culture is being replaced by the discourse of “excellence.” On the surface, this does not seem particularly pernicious.

The author cautions, however, that we should not embrace this techno-bureaucratic appeal too quickly. The new University of Excellence is a corporation driven by market forces, and, as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought. Readings urges us to imagine how to think, without concession to corporate excellence or recourse to romantic nostalgia within an institution in ruins. The result is a passionate appeal for a new community of thinkers.

This sounds familiar.

The solution

Jeffrey J. Williams outlines the history of the idea of the university and offers a solution to this ruinous situation: teaching the idea, history, literature and sociology of the university in the university, specifically, in English departments that, as writing zones, are supposed to know well what is ostensibly the language of the university: writing (“Teach the University,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 8.1 [2007]: 25-42).

Williams Intro

Jacques Derrida offers a radical—and perhaps utopian—response, arguing for “The University without Condition,” in which the “new humanities” will play a vital role, because they are concerned with humanity, human rights and crimes against humanity, the same concerns that “organise” mondialisation (globalisation), “which wishes to be a humanisation” (Without Alibi, trans. Peggy Kamuf [Stanford UP, 2002]):

University Without Condition 202


University Without Condition 203


What, then, is the role of the humanities in the university without condition? It is to exercise the right to speak without condition—“to say everything” and “to say it publicly,” as literature does (cf. Jacques Rancière, who might say that whereas the “police” operates via consensus, “politics” operates via dissensus; the university without condition would be “political”—or “redistributed” according to what he calls the “democratic heresy”):

University Without Condition 205(205)

(So I read Williams as more pragmatic than Derrida—or perhaps he’s just less Continental: for Derrida, literature, the writing of différance, will take over from philosophy as the language of university; for Williams, it seems, it’s writing per se.)

This solution is complicated if we view the historical situation in which we find ourselves as not amenable to humanistic, literary or writerly enquiry, as Vilèm Flusser suggests it is in “The Codified World” (Writings [U MN P, 2002] 35-41). His epochal reading of codes is as follows:

  1. premodern/prehistorical: image—the scene (imagination: magic, myths)
  2. modern/historical: writing—the concept (conception: explanations, theories, ideologies)
  3. postmodern/posthistorical: techno-image—the program (techno-imagination: models, games)

For Flusser, we face a “crisis of values” at the transition to techno-images because the old written “programs,” politics, philosophy and science, not to mention art and history, have been disempowered (41).


I would say: the university is not in ruins—a certain idea of the university might well be: of the university as “literary” research institution, certainly, or, more broadly, of the human university. It is, in fact, in rude good health, not so much in the Crystal Palace of the Business School, the “excellent” (transparent/transcendentally capitalised) university, with its reduction of governance to calculability, but in the face-to-face encounter in the place of learning, wherever it should be.

Said “excellent” university wants to count its students and research outputs, but it does not account for itself (it is non-reflexive); teachers in the university ought to account for themselves—as should students (they should be reflexive). This teachers can do, not by grading students and counting research outputs, but by taking account of the “distribution of the sensible” (a description of what counts) that prevails in the place of learning: affect from below (democratic affect); deformance, intentional and otherwise; decryption; etc. . . . (of which more later).

And because the “excellent” university is also an “exploded” university, it is distributed well beyond the walls of the Crystal Palace through the relatively autonomous—and thus relatively incalculable—nodes of remote learning and other @-universities; and encloses within its walls other similar nodes, such as centres, writing-studies classrooms (!), and (post-)seminars.


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