Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Posthistoric University: From Détournement to Denudement

Dwelling in the ruins of the University thus means giving a serious attention to the present complexity of space, undertaking an endless work of détournement of the spaces willed to us by a history whose temporality we no longer inhabit. Like the inhabitants of some Italian city, we can seek neither to rebuild the Renaissance city-state nor to destroy its remnants and install rationally planned tower-blocks; we can seek only to put its angularities and winding passages to new uses, learning from and enjoying the cognitive dissonances that enclosed piazzas and and non-signifying campanile induce.
(Readings 1999: 129)

Bill Readings critique of the postmodern (what he calls posthistoric) university in his book The University in Ruins (1996), analyses the university in its redirection from a historico-cultural legacy to its current incarnation in the form of a capital-generating, consumer-oriented, corporate entity. His investigation focuses on the quality of 'excellence' which he sees as being the watchword of the corporate university. For Readings, 'excellence' is a hollow term that has no absolute definition; he sees it as a construct of the bureaucratic university that provides a marker of simulacra-like value: “[...] excellence is not a fixed standard of judgement but a qualifier whose meaning is fixed in relation to something else” (1999: 24), and “Excellence is […] a means of relative ranking among the elements of an entirely closed system” (1999: 27).

While Readings examination of the university is not an obvious reading of space, he often makes spatial references in relation to capitalist power: geo-political, architectural and noetic/psychic space. This is especially apparent in the chapter entitled 'Dwelling in the Ruins', where associations can be made to the language of the Situationist International group (SI), even though Readings does not make direct reference to this (other than his use of the term détournement, the only obvious reference is on page 17 where he mentions Guy Debord and provides a definition of 'the spectacle'). In this chapter Readings discusses the idea of architectural ruins, and how this ties in with his thesis on the posthistoric university, analysing the university from a number of perspectives, including ideological, pragmatic and romantic. I shall return to the notion of 'the ruins' in the chapter of this dissertation entitled 'Resituating the Ruins'.

It is apparent in the opening quote that Readings uses architecture as a vehicle for his critique of today's university. Even though he is discussing historical, philosophical, ideological and/or political space in the opening extract, rather than geographical, he nevertheless uses the language of the concrete to make his point: the Italian city. He also uses a term appropriated by the SI, détournement, to express the need for a continual re-working of the past in order to appropriate and resituate it in the form of the new. Here is an oft-quoted definition of 'détournement' provided by the SI:
Short for: détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements. The integration of present and past artistic production into a superior milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist use of these means. In a more primitive sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which testifies to the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.
(Situationist International 1996: 70)1.

It is apparent from the above definition that the process of détournement can be utilised within any form of production and is not something solely associated within an act of challenging capitalist power, as it would have been for the SI. The above quote makes reference to how it has historically been used in an ideological way, through propaganda. The act/process of détournement is not something that has only been used in a utopian project, such as that of the SI, but can be employed for any 'political' end, or indeed artistic means. As the SI state above: “In this sense there can be no situationist use of these means.”; this seems somewhat contradictory, since they have already appropriated the word in an attempt to reuse it in another setting. Also, in relation to the power invested in the term in essays by many members of the group, including Debord's essay 'Détournement as Negation and Prelude' (1959), it is clear from accounts that the Situationists did use the process in a practical sense, as Simon Sadler explains in The Situationist City: “Détournement would permit anyone to take part in raids on official culture” (2001: 44). While the SI do not explain what they mean by “a superior milieu”, it may stand for the institutions that they consider problematic, and because of this their denial that “there can be no situationist use of these means” may be a politico-philosophical one in that for them a “superior milieu” may represent a totalising form, which their programme fought against.

To return to Readings' use of détournement. In this dissertation, I propose to use the term in a spatial sense in the same way Readings has above. Sadler sums this up well when he discusses the practices that the Situationists utilise in the city, such as psychogeography (which I will shortly return to); he describes détournement as “diversion” (2001: 11), which is one of the typical translations from the French. My own diversion from Readings forms an important connection between Readings own comments on space and history, in relation to the university as city, and the processes utilised by the SI group in their critique of the capitalist city-scape. In the way that Readings recommends as a way of challenging the space of the posthistoric university, I should like to discuss and propose a possible process in the form of a concrete practice, in an effort to apply “a serious attention to the present complexity of space” (Readings 1999: 129) of the university. I shall do this by lifting the corporate veil of the university and revealing it in its nakedness.

One of the definitions that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) applies to the verb denude is: “To make naked or bare; to strip of clothing or covering; spec. in Geol. of natural agencies: To lay bare (a rock or formation) by the removal of that which lies above it.”. It is interesting how the OED have provided an example of the word 'denude' here in a geo-spatial way by making reference to geological formation. My own excavation of the university will not be a geological one, nor archaeological, as I shall not be psychically digging beneath an actual surface, but rather more an ideological surface. I propose to explore the topography of university space that exists in the form of the campus, in an effort to: re-appropriate the university space; examine the outward phenomenon of the corporate university; and provide an alternative cartography to that supplied by the university. Before I begin the process of revealing the naked university, I should like to introduce the SI group's concept of the Naked City.

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