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The Red Collective: "Humanities for Sale"

Humanities for Sale
The Red Collective


     1. What is called the "crisis of the humanities" is now a catch phrase that is the subject of numerous books and conferences and draws large crowds to lectures. But it is also more than just a popular culture phenomenon. The crisis points to the larger contradictions in which the corporate university is caught; contradictions, on the one hand, between the pursuit of the so-called "disinterested" knowledge which is the grounding premise of the university and, on the other, the logic of capitalist social relations which commodifies knowledge for profit and in actuality sets the agenda and even direction of the "disinterested" knowledge. Consequently, the "disinterested knowledge" has become less and less "disinterested" and more and more "pragmatic" and commodified. Today the university has, by and large, become an annex of the corporation and its executive agent -- the State. These contradictions are not resolvable within transnational capitalism.

     2. The so-called "crisis in the humanities" is really a "struggle over" (rather than a "crisis in") social relations as manifested in the humanities. It is from the perspective of the bourgeoisie that the struggle over capitalist social relations is understood as an (inexplicable or "traumatic") "crisis," because these relations are -- despite all the more or less recent and variously "nuanced" claims that we are now in a post-(binary)class epoch -- fundamentally antagonistic class relations within which the bourgeoisie is positioned as exploiter (of the proletariat) based on its ownership of the means of production. In other words, this is a "crisis" to be gotten over or "managed" from the perspective of those who benefit from the current, exploitative social relations. However, from the perspective of those who are exploited under these social relations, the proletariat (based on their "lack" of ownership of means of production and the subsequent compulsion to sell their labour-power to the highest bidder), this "crisis" in/of the humanities is one site of a broader struggle over social priorities. In struggles over knowledges, like all struggles over social priorities, what is ultimately at stake is a contestation over the social relations -- those that currently exist and which structurally prioritize profits through the production and circulation of exchange values (commodities) versus those which exist in potentia (on the basis of the objective socialization of labor across the globe) and which prioritize meeting needs through the production of use-values. In short, like all such social struggles over priorities ("need" of people or "profit" of big business), this "crisis" is essentially a class struggle. It is the ruling elite and their clerks in the culture industry who represent this class struggle over material and historical social relations and the social consciousness formed by it as a cultural "crisis" (that is as a "disruption" and an "obstruction" of the norms and values).

     3. Radical shifts in the global economy have changed the university, and with it, the humanities. Instead of producing a critical culture and providing citizens with the knowledge ("social consciousness") to critique the prevailing ideas that legitimate the dominant social relations and thus help to bring about social justice, the "new" humanities service transnational corporations by providing up-to-date training in what we shall call "hypertext." By "hypertext" we do not "literally" mean a collection of documents that are cross-referenced ("linked") and made ready to be read by a browser which enables the reader to move from one document to another. Rather, we are using "hypertext" as the symbol of the "new" pragmatic skills of information management in cyberspace, skills which are severed from critique because they are purely bottom-line oriented and devoid of knowledge regarding how, why, and for whom those skills work. The "hypertext" humanities are efficient performative skills in information and communication pragmatics; they are indifferent to their own social and political consequences for the vast majority. They serve the boss, not the people; they follow the logic of social relations that sets social priorities on "profit" in commerce.

     4. The clash of commerce and critique has produced what is popularized as the "crisis of the humanities," but which is, as we have suggested, a class struggle over social relations of production and consequently the very shape and contents of "social consciousness." It is, in other words, a struggle over the uses of the humanities under global capitalism: should they produce a critical citizenry with conceptual knowledge of global and complex social relations necessary to set inclusive social priorities, or train hypertext functionaries who carry out the order of "profit"?

     5. The issues have great impact on practices at several levels. We have already mentioned their importance in the struggles over social relations that, of course, frame all other relations. More immediately, the struggles over social relations leads to specific institutional struggles over what is to be taught as the humanities and how it is to be taught. These institutional struggles which are reflective of larger social struggles are often trivialized as "academic fights" in the popular press and in conservative circles which attempt to personalize what is basically a historical struggle over social priorities. In recent years, the English Department at SUNY-Albany has been the site of such struggles. We take SUNY-Albany as our exemplary institution both because it is very much a "typical" institution caught in the contradictions we have outlined and also because we have, over the years, studied the unfolding of these struggles in that institution.1

     6. The outcome of these struggles affects not only the larger issues that we have so far suggested, but also local priorities, privileges and marginalizations -- in short, the outcome shapes everyday life. It determines, among other things, which students get admitted, who gets funded, who gets hired as faculty, who receives merit raises, who serves on what committee, and thus who speaks and who is kept silent. The outcome defines the "humanities" and on the basis of this definition, institutions justify who gets "educated," who finds a "job" and makes the decisions, and, finally, whether decision makers act on the priority of meeting the needs of all (for health care, affordable housing, etc.), or on the priority of ensuring greater profits for the few.

     7. Contestations over the humanities have led to a high level of tension ("crisis") in institutions. As a strategy to "manage the crisis" and lower the tension the managers of the English Department at SUNY-Albany recently did what all liberal managers do: they organized a forum on the humanities and invited speakers from outside the university (i.e., crisis "consultants") to address the issues. Open discussions are, of course, often helpful. But what happened/is happening at SUNY-Albany was not/is not open discussion: it is a staged "open" debate in which only a few handpicked and trusted persons can participate. The need for an open public debate on these questions is of particular importance at this moment at all universities, but especially at SUNY-Albany and other state universities. In spite of a huge surplus in New York State, the Republican Governor has reduced the public education budget and consequently this budget shortfall has caused SUNY-Albany to cut off such activities as traveling to conferences for exchange of ideas and debates by faculty and students. So now at Albany -- like some other universities -- the only critical contacts that faculty and students have with the outside world is through the "invited" lecturers. It is therefore all the more important that the "invited" people be representative of a wide range of contesting ideas (that is, contesting "classes" and their objective interests that are represented by "ideas") on the transnational humanities and the underlying class and other social issues.

     8. However, as might be expected, like all liberal debates, the debates over the humanities at SUNY-Albany, as we have already said, only looked like an "open" one. The debates were "show" debates and their conclusions determined before they even started. The managers of the Department invited Jacques Derrida-the French writer whose work was influential in the 1960s and 1970s -- to give a lecture on the humanities and the university. What makes Derrida (and Derrideans in general) particularly attractive to university administrators now is not only that he is a celebrity in the academy and thus his arguments, which are identical with the administrators' own arguments, have an almost automatic authority. It is also the fact that his "celebrity" focuses attention on him as a person and thereby diverts attention from his class politics. In other words, the focus on Derrida's celebrity status diverts attention from the fact that his arguments, in a subtle and always oblique fashion that is not easily detectable by a busy public, favor the corporate interest which now lies behind the transnational university. These arguments are all the more effective because, unlike the rhetoric of more vulgar right-wing ideologues, his is the "radical," and even left, rhetoric of an enlightened and concerned person; that is, as "concerned" as the enlightened "concerned" bankers who have realized racism, for example, is no longer cost effective and are now for "diversity" in the marketplace.

     9. The investment of corporate interest in Derridean subtle argument is so great that the management of the English Department at SUNY-Albany has persistently refused to let these arguments be critiqued. It has refused to invite any critic who opposes the corporate humanities and crosses the established boundaries of mainstream debates on humanities. No one who can raise, for example, the issue of class in the humanities or demystify the relations of humanities and imperialism or the role of humanities in the commodification of information (the class politics of the "hypertext" humanities) is allowed to address the issues. In short, one way the redefinition of the humanities is being controlled is by controlling who gets to come here and speak. Every one invited to speak at Albany so far (Derrida, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Bennington, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith) as well as those being considered (Gayatri Spivak, Cathy Caruth, and Homi Bhabha) is part of an academic clique that has gained institutional power and identity because they have followed the Derridean/poststructuralist line of argument that separates humanities from class struggle and turns them into sophisticated modes of information management ("reading"). In fact the politics of poststructuralist "argument" and its views of the role of the humanities in struggle for cultural and social justice became quite clear in Derrida's own lecture.

     10. In his lecture at Albany which was entitled, "The Future of the Profession or the Unconditional University," Derrida, after declaring his (formal) allegiance to a "free" university, proceeded, through a subtle move, to the real business at hand which was legitimation of the logic of "hypertext" humanities. He did this, as usual, in an indirect way by representing "technology" as the shaping force of history. His normalization of technologism and erasure of "labor" took the form of a "reading" of the "work" and "labor" theories advocated by such technological determinists and apologists of global capitalism as Jeremy Rifkin and Stanley Aronowitz. His point, of course, was the familiar one repeated in many voices by other clerks of ruling class: we are in the post-work situation ("farewell to the working class") and the "new" humanities must train knowledge workers -- not critical citizens. In fact the very possibility of critique is denied by representing critique as a foundational and thus totalitarian act. When he was specifically asked about an agenda for social change and the need for the humanities to be part of a radical critique and action to resist the power of corporations -- which reduces most people to mere instruments of labor -- he used an old deconstructive ploy and evasively advised that no radical action can be planned since, like the meaning of a text, "radical actions" are excessive (of any "plan") and thus their consequences indeterminate. Derrida is the ideal spokesperson for an "enlightened," liberal ruling class -- he talks a radical rhetoric, but what he actually offers is utopian fatalism: do not act now, wait! Not now, later! The later, of course, never comes, and that is exactly the plan for the "new" (hypertext) humanities: passively sit back and use your skills to improve your consuming power when corporations are ravaging the environment, shifting jobs from country to country to maximize profit, setting up sweatshops and gutting universities all over the world, turning them into training grounds for their own workforce. For instance, Mexico's largest university has been torn apart by the fight between new corporate interests and radical intellectuals who insist the role of the university is to ensure a critical space in culture from which to defend social justice and the rights of people.

     11. Tom Cohen, the chief manager of the English Department at Albany, justifies inviting Derrida and friends to Albany by claiming that they represent the "cutting-edge" (itself, of course, a corporate marketing cliché). So it is necessary to ask: whose cutting-edge is this?

     12. In reality, what is presented as the cutting-edge in most U.S. universities is essentially the recycled ideas and views of yesterday. The datedness of poststructuralism in general and Derrida's views in particular are widely known both inside and outside the U.S. Even avant-garde journals previously devoted to "deconstruction" theory (such as diacritics at Cornell) who sell copies by hyping deconstruction and poststructuralism now declare it exhausted. British critic Brian Vickers in the Times Literary Supplement (London) analyzes how Derrida (part of the avant-garde several decades ago) is being feted as a "star" on the lecture circuit of 3rd and 4th tier colleges and universities. In fact deconstruction has been so closed to critical debate that it has become more like a religious "faith" and, as Vickers points out, its future "lies in theology departments." When asked by the reporter of a local newspaper why Derrida had been invited to Albany, another English Department manager responded (Albany Times Union, Monday October 11, 1999) that Derrida's visit to Albany was "all about throwing windows open." However, one should not forget that windows are being opened to a very narrow view: Albany (like most other universities who are presented with the tired discourses of yesterday's avant-garde) is getting "windows thrown open" to the stale air of a tightly enclosed space. As Vickers writes, "Derrideans now seem pathetically parochial."

     13. Far from throwing the windows open, the discussion of the humanities has been limited to a coterie of trusted academic entrepreneurs whose main credentials are that they are academic celebrities. In the name of "rebuilding" the humanities, and at the same time that the humanities are themselves being hijacked by millennial monopoly-merger capitalism, humanities departments are in fact being turned into museums of mummified ideas that were popular in the 1960's and 1970's.

     14. To further institutionalize this corporate view of the humanities and their underlying class interests in the millennium, Tom Cohen, the chief manager of the Department, is co-staging a conference -- "Book/Ends" -- next year. The conference, which is funded by public money, aims to tell the public that the humanities are changing from a culture of books to a culture of hypertext. This is a not very subtle way of indoctrinating the parents and silencing them when they raise questions about turning the universities into a purely vocational and technical training grounds to train the army of the (un)employed for transnational corporations. This glib, cynical view, in other words, is manufactured to manipulate the fear of parents and force them into a consensus and in the meantime obscure the fact that the shift in the humanities is really the result of radical changes in the globalization of labor and production that has led to a widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

     15. What is being presented to the public-parents in the name of a radical shift in the humanities is basically an ideological justification for this "new" world order -- the "new" order that further naturalizes "profit" and undermines the "needs" of people. The "new" message is clear: in order for the humanities to remain viable under global capitalism, Derrida and the corporate managers say, it has to update itself. This updating ("new"-ing), as always, takes the form not of serving people but turning them into more efficient instruments of labor for capital by substituting ever "new"-er skills for critical understanding of the world-historical conditions that shape contemporary life under the current class system.

     16. The various public events (conferences, . . .) are all staged as part of an ongoing attempt to divert attention from the way humanities are now being used to justify the interests of corporations that have turned universities into training grounds for their "new" workforce. Humanities do, of course, have an important role to play in a global society.

     17. Critique-al (not hypertext) Humanities can become part of an active struggle for transforming social relations and thus reorganizing social priorities towards universal social justice. What is taking place at SUNY-Albany is symptomatic of a more general trend in higher education today to abandon in favor of transnational capital the project of the humanities as a critique capable of educating citizens who are committed to equality and who struggle for a society that is committed to meeting the needs of all people.

Kimberly DeFazio, Deborah Kelsh, Julie Torrant, and Rob Wilkie
for The Red Theory Collective



1 For a more detailed discussion of SUNY-Albany see Teresa L. Ebert, "Quango-ing the University: The End(s) of Critique-al Humanities" Cultural Logic. Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall 1997). Online.



Contents copyright © 1995, 2001 by The Red Collective.

Format copyright © 2001 by Cultural Logic, ISSN 1097-3087, Volume 3, Number 2, Spring, 2000.