In the wake of the quake: Teaching the emergency

A new article by Stephen and me in Educational Philosophy and Theory:

The university today finds itself in a global state of emergency, at once financial, military and ecological. Teaching must assume this emergency as premise and responsibility: it must consider the grounds of the classroom, both figurative and literal, and generate emergent lines of inquiry that address the pressing global and local situation. For us, that means that teaching must take the university’s grounds of supposedly universal knowledge to be constitutively unstable and to require a reflexive teaching method that puts in question disciplinary fields and discursive modalities of knowledge. And it must take in the physical grounds of the university too—because local space is increasingly articulated by technocapital interests that are fully implicated in this global state of emergency. Thus, we do not seek stability amidst such turbulence, but rather a seismotic overturning of the grounds of the university or, rather, a returning to its ground, through the deepened sense of purpose and place that ‘teaching the emergency’ provides.

First 50 downloads free through this link.


Workplace: The New Academic Manners, Managers, and Spaces

Check out Workplace 20 (2012): The New Academic Manners, Managers, and Spaces (link).

Workplace is a refereed, open access journal published by a collective of scholars in critical higher education promoting a new dignity in academic work.

Stephen Turner and my “Cardinal Newman in the Crystal Palace: The Idea of the University Today” appears here.

A Stanford on the Waitemata

Get this: The New Zealand Herald promos Michael Parker’s book The Pine Tree Paradox (2010) in Michael Dickison’s “A Stanford on the Waitemata” (The New Zealand Herald 25 Sep. 2012). Parker argues that

New Zealand’s chance to become a world-leading economy could be on our wharves, with a true research university to rival Stanford.

Stephen Turner and I wrote about this proposal in our essay, “Knowledge Waves: New Zealand as Educational Enterprise,” Australian Journal of Communication 38.3 (2011): 153-77; see my earlier post that links to it.

Hoskin on the discipline of education

Keith W. Hoskin, “Education and the Genesis of Disciplinarity: The Unexpected Reversal,” Knowledges: Historical and Critical Studies in Disciplinarity, ed. E. Messer-Davidow et al. (Charlotteville; London: UP of VA, 1993) 271-304.

Hoskin gives a genealogy of the knowledge “ecosystem” of the modern university, with its disciplines and characteristic disciplinary micropractices, arguing that education is not a subdiscipline, but the engine of disciplinarity (this is the “unexpected reversal”):

Both the genesis and the continually expanding power of disciplinarity are outcomes of simple and humble changes in education . . . that took place at the end of the eighteenth century . . . :

1. constant rigorous examination;

2. numerical grading of the results of this examination [a.k.a. “calculability”];

3. an insistent process of writing by students, about students, and organizationally around students [a.k.a. “grammatocentrism”]. (272; italics mine)

It gave rise to three new “educational settings”: the seminar, the laboratory, the classroom; and three versions of the “newly disciplined, but also self-disciplining human subject”: “the dispassionate man of science,” “the reflexively aware practitioner of hermeneutics,” “the ambiguous social scientist” (275-76).

Hoskin draws on Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison [Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison], trans. Alan Sheridan (1975; New York: Pantheon, 1977) . . .

Panoptical Tower


For Foucault, examination is the key: it embodies “an observing hierarchy and . . . a normalizing judgement,” aimed at reforming the individual from without, through discipline—and within, through self-discipline (184). It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth” (184). It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (finding out what they know, who they are, etc.) and controls their behavior (forcing them to learn in certain ways, declare themselves, etc.), i.e., in knowing we control and in controlling we know.


The examination also situates individuals in a “field of documentation” (189). Individuals not only sit exams, but submit to examination. The results of exams are recorded in documents, e.g., assignments, records/rolls, that provide detailed information about the individuals examined and allow them to be controlled. On the basis of these documents, those in control can formulate categories, means, and norms that are in turn a basis for knowledge. So, reform happens through through recording, a.k.a. writing.

Hoskin goes further, suggesting that the “third term at work in the power-knowledge relation,” which Foucault as a “crypto-educationalist” fails to recognise, is educational practice: “the hyphen in the power-knowledge relation is the historically changing structure of educational practice through which humans learn to learn” (296). The etymology of the word “discipline” (L. disciplina) condenses all three meanings :

  1. the “instruction given to a disciple,” i.e. knowledge;
  2. the “order necessary for [this] instruction,” i.e. power; and, as discipulina (of which disciplina is a contraction), according to a questionable etymology,
  3. disci– f. discere learn + pu- f. puer/puella, child, thus “to get ‘learning’ . . . into ‘the child,'” i.e. education.

Hoskin's Hyphen

Hence the vital role of the “total institution” of the contemporary university (Erving Goffman, Asylums [1961]): it is the engine of the “total mobilisation” of society in the service of transcendental capitalism (Ernst Jünger, Total Mobilisation [1931]).

(See Simon Caterson, “Building the Total University,” Quadrant 47.12 [Dec. 2003]: 20-25, repr. Robert Dessaix [ed.], Best Australian Essays 2004 [Melbourne: Black Inc., 2004].)

μοχλός (lever) and μηχανή (machine)

Models for understanding the role of writing or writing studies in denaturalising and reworking the university, i.e. writing—Derrida calls it “philosophy”—as potentially a lever on the university (which in itself is a lever on nature—or rather, on culture or second nature; any lever being a machine that is designed to deceive, to cheat nature or to become nature), the question being the degree to which or which part of the old university might serve as the fulcrum on which the lever rests to vault us into the new one  . . .

1. The lever (μοχλός, mochlos)

Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth” (δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω [from Pappus of Alexandria, Synagoge 7])

Vilém Flusser on the lever: “The Lever Strikes Back” (The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design [Reaktion Books, 1999] 51-54) and “About the Word Design” (Shape of Things 19). The lever, like all technologies, cheats the laws of nature by exploiting them, thereby “to replace what is natural with what is artificial”:

Flusser Mochlos

c.1300, from O.Fr. levier “a lifter, a lever,” agent noun from lever “to raise,” from L. levare “to raise,” from levis “light” in weight, from PIE base *le(n)gwh- “light, easy, agile, nimble.”

Jacques Derrida on the lever (“Mochlos; or, the Conflict of the Faculties” [1980; 1984], Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2 [Stanford UP, 2004] 83-112 and Richard Rand [ed.], Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties [U NE P, 1992] 1-34):

To found (or find) something new in “history, morality or politics” involves a compromise with the old, the old thus serving as “a support [hypomochlion] for a leap” toward the new (hypomochlion: the point of support or fulcrum of a lever, centre of rotation of a joint, or point of rest of a process). The difficulty lies “in determining the best lever,” i.e. mochlos, “something, in short, to lean on for forcing and displacing” (or to throw into the eye of a Cyclops, perhaps). As a result, “the most serious discords and decisions have to do less often with ends . . . than with levers.” See Derrida 2004, 110-11:

Derrida Mochlos 110

Derrida Mochlos 111


2. The machine (μηχανή, mechane)

Henry Ward Beecher: “A tool is but the extension of a man’s hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. He that invents a machine augments the power of man and the well-being of mankind” (Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit).

Vilém Flusser on the machine: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs” (Leonardo 19.4 [1 Oct. 1986]: 329-32), and About the Word Design” (17). A machine is designed to deceive.

Flusser Mechos

1549, “structure of any kind,” from M.Fr. machine “device, contrivance,” from L. machina “machine, engine, fabric, frame, device, trick,” from Gk. makhana, Doric variant of mekhane “device, means,” related to mekhos “means, expedient, contrivance,” from PIE *maghana- “that which enables,” from base *magh- “to be able, have power.” Main modern sense of “device made of moving parts for applying mechanical power” (1673) probably grew out of 17c. senses of “apparatus, appliance” (1650) and “military siege-tower” (1656). Machinery (1687) was originally theatrical, “devices for creating stage effects;” meaning “machines collectively” is attested from 1731.

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.

The place of learning

teachers put/keep students in their place—and step into the centre of the room: the institutional place-holder (the zero in the zone)
the only alternative seems to be mapping the places within the PLACE (description [+], rather than prescription [-]—tho this process is in itself prescriptive [either it offers an open prescription or a prescription that is a decryption [kryptos, “hidden,” thus uncovering, a.k.a. aletheia], i.e. decodes the institutional code [a code uses a cipher or algorithm that makes it unreadable to anyone who doesn’t possess special knowledge, a.k.a. a key], transcribing its ciphertext in

Quin etiam obest plerumque iis qui discere volunt auctoritas eorum qui se docere profitentur; desinunt enim suum iudicium adhibere, id habent ratum quod ab eo quem probant iudicatum vident.

In fact the authority of those who stand forward as teachers is generally an obstacle in the way of those who wish to learn, for the latter cease to apply their own judgment, and take for granted the conclusions which they find arrived at by the teacher whom they approve.

—Cicero, De Natura Deorum [On the Nature of the Gods], trans. Francis Brooks (London: Methuen, 1896) 1.5.10 (see Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children“)

Normally, in the classroom, the place of learning, teachers cannot help but put and keep students in their place by stepping into the centre of the room, which is the institutional place-holder. They then, intentionally or not, prescribe what learning work can take place there.

This happens even in the liberal—read: enlightened and equalitarian—writing studies classroom in a university, where students are compelled to disclose themselves to their co-workers to be allowed to participate fully and freely in the work of learning. This is obviously problematic, say, when the classroom is multicultural and the teacher is of the dominant culture—or, for that matter, when there are females in the class and the teacher is male (see Alison Jones’s “Pedagogy by the Oppressed: The Limits of Classroom Dialogue“).

Thus, the “democratic heresy” of the writing zone, to borrow Rancière’s phrase, which takes “equality as a point of departure” (see “Politics and Aesthetics: An Interview” 192), proves, like most heresies, to be an authorised misreading of a “religious” authority. That is to say, the writing zone’s not really democratic or heretical: it’s another cloister, a “free” space within the institution that has been authorised by it—much like the space of the seminar.

It’s not one of those sites that, according to Foucault in “Of Other Spaces,” “have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites [in the spatial network of a society], but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect,” the non-site of the utopia or the counter-site of the heterotopia that “contradict all the other sites.”

(For Foucault, utopias [ou-topos, “no place”] are unreal places “that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society,” that perfect or invert it; heterotopias [hetero-topos, “other place”] are “real places . . . which are something like counter-sites, . . . enacted utopia[s] in which the real sites . . . are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” [see wikipedia].)

The writing zone’s not a utopia, an ideal refuge, or a heterotopia, a critical vantage. It is not the counter-university within the university: there is no counter-university—especially not one that works from below; the university goes all the way down.

Of course, this was always already true of the university, ever since the academy was placed at the centre of education by the Greeks (not at the centre of the state per se, which centre is occupied by the religious site). It is called the academy (Ἑκάδημος) from when Castor and Polydeuces, guardians of Sparta, invaded Attica to liberate their sister Helen, and Akademos betrayed to them that Theseus had concealed her at Aphidnae. Whenever the Spartans invaded Attica, the twins always spared Akademos’s land, which lay on the Cephissus, six stadia from Athens. In the historical era, his land became identified with a grove of Athena outside the walls of Athens—just outside the city proper. The academy, the garden of Athena, goddess of wisdom, seems, then, to represent a haven from politics—but it is one secured by politics.

The only alternative for teachers seems to be to enable learners—and teachers themselves—to map their places within the place of learning, thereby taking account of the various positionalities at work there and their relative positions: a process of description, rather than prescription. Of course, this process is in itself prescriptive, in that it closes off the room by defining what can or does go on there. Or, you might say, it offers

  1. an open prescription for what can or does go on there or
  2. a prescription that is a decryption [kryptos, “hidden,” thus decryption, “unhiding,” a.k.a. aletheia, truth as unconcealment], in that . . .

. . . we thereby decode the institutional code (a code uses a cipher or algorithm that makes it unreadable to anyone who doesn’t possess special knowledge, a.k.a. a key), transcribing its ciphertext in plaintext. The teacher gives the lead in this decoding process, because they work within and know how to “work” the system to which the learner wants access and cannot but work with.

Not coincidentally, this is akin to the sacrilegious practice that Vilém Flusser in “The Future of Writing” calls writing, by which we “learn to decipher . . . images, . . . [to] learn the conventions that give them their meaning,” images—and imagination—for Flusser being mythic, magical (and thus propitiatory) and prehistoric, and writing—and conceptual thought—being religious, scientific (and thus political) and historical (65). When we write (rightly) at university, we decipher the immutable mythic entity that is the university to understand the magical gestures by which we propitiate it and thereby understand it as a mutable institution, with a liturgy (a way of working), an epistemology (a way of knowing), and thus a politics (a distribution of work).