I’ve been implicitly upbraided for not writing enough about posthegemony on this here “Posthegemony” blog. But everything’s connected…
I’m reading Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins (for which see also Dominick LaCapra’s review, as well as Peter Cramer’s). Here, Readings argues that the operative principle of the University is now “excellence,” a concept that replaces the previous guiding concept of “culture,” which itself succeeded the Kantian vision of “reason.”
But the characteristic of the University of Excellence is that it lacks any concrete referent: “excellence has no concept to call its own” (24); “excellence is clearly a purely internal unit of value that effectively brackets all questions of reference or function” (27). Whereas the University of Culture was tied to the nation state and to national culture as its object and the national subject as its product, the University of Excellence is contextless and its students merely “consumers” (53); the university’s goal is now that “of producing a subject who is no longer tied to the nation-state, who can readily move to meet the demands of the global market” (49).
At the same time, therefore, ideology is replaced by administration: “the University is no longer primarily an ideological arm of the nation-state but an autonomous bureaucratic corporation” (40). Accounting becomes the sole measure of accountability: “the language in which global discussions are to be conducted is not that of cultural conflict but of economic management” (30).
My own institution’s “trek” is a good example of the University of Excellence’s self-expression. After all, unlike the Great Trek from which the metaphor is taken (a referent that is of course obscured or denied), the university’s trek lacks any specific goal: Trek 2000 seamlessly becomes Trek 2010 because the vision’s logic is essentially circular; “what [is] already an excellent university” is exhorted to “create a working environment dedicated to excellence”. Excellence is both presupposed and an endlessly shifting, perpetually unachievable target.
Moreover, though the call to create “global citizens” appears to provide some kind of ethical or political impulse, in fact it’s best seen as the definitive break from a national project as Readings describes it.
It’s true that there’s an irony here, in that Canadians believe themselves to be already the specific incarnation of model global citizens: who, after all, are more global and more civic-minded than they? But this is only an instance of the crisis of Canadian identity, in an epoch in which (as Douglas Coupland endlessly laments) Canadianness survives only as a souvenir, a half-remembered relic of purported white middle-class civility realized après coup as a function of what’s by now a merely decorative consumer culture.
The circularity of the institution’s mission is best illustrated by the anecdote told by the university’s president at the launch of Trek’s corporate vision, an anecdote presented as an inspiring vision of hope and humility. At an event at the city’s Downtown Eastside, a community that’s also Canada’s poorest postcode, “at the close of the session, a 10 year old boy [. . .] came up to me and said meekly, ‘Dr. Piper, I want to thank UBC for coming to my school this week—and I just want you to know that I want to come to UBC when I grow up.’” No, not “I want to be a lawyer/doctor/tycoon” or “I want to work for social justice” or “I want to be proud of my neighborhood” or any of the other ambitions (good or bad) that one might imagine that the university could foster, and that the University of Culture once encouraged.
Rather, the institution becomes its own raison d’être: the goal of the university comes to be simply to generate (a “meek”) desire for the institution even among those who are statistically least likely ever to be granted admission to it.