Saturday, 21 November 2009

Action, Excellence and the Naturalisation of Subjection

The term 'excellence', which Bill Readings describes as the “watchword of the University” (1999: 21), requires internal operations in order for it to be measured. These operations exist in the form of actions and practices carried out by individuals within the university: in particular, administrative staff, but also teaching staff and students. The assessments are considered to be quantifying procedures but are actually qualifying ones. The measuring systems used attempt to quantify something that cannot really be quantified (excellence is an empty and fluid term with no absolute measure). Really what is occurring is a qualifying gesture: the measuring of excellence is circular, it just enables excellence as a unit of measure to be reconfirmed. Thus, excellence is qualified (justified) in the measuring of itself. This is how the ideology of the university - this mirror-like process - enables actions to be sutured into its practices, at the same time reproducing itself as an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA), and its staff as subjects.

Louis Althusser discuses this mirror relationship in relation to how the subject of ideology connects with the Subject of ideology through a process of misrecognition. Providing an example of Christian religion he explains that “God is the Subject par excellence” (2006: 121). It is essential for the Subject of ideology that He reproduces Himself in the form of His subjects; and since man has been made in the image of God he will see himself in Him (2006: 122). Althusser explains that it is this “universal recognition” that becomes the “absolute guarantee” that subjects within the relevant apparatus will do what is required of them by the institution (2006: 123). However, he does acknowledge that there are “bad subjects” (those who do not conform) who might require some form of repressive action (ibid.).

Althusser uses the example highlighted by Blaise Pascal to demonstrate how actions inserted into practices actually work. And, here I am quoting Althusser quoting Pascal: “Pascal says more or less: 'Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.'” (2006: 114). For Pascal, to believe in God all that is required is that you pray. Althusser explains that, from the perspective of the single individual, this works through how the individual acts within the particular ISA: “[...] his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.” (ibid.) (Althusser's italics). For individual staff who are part of the process of measuring excellence, this would involve such actions as: collating information on key performance indicators; processing student's feedback forms on their lecturer's; involvement in the peer review process; or developing knowledge transfer processes. But, the list is endless - mostly because these processes cannot be separated from the everyday operations of the university. One some level, everyone is working towards excellence.

Nevertheless, in the educational institution I do think there are individuals who might behave as 'good subjects' - they may go-through-the-motions of carrying out the relevant actions - but may not 'believe'. Not all the staff of the university who participate in its practices are unaware of what is occurring on an ideological level. I do not believe that all the university's members believe in the term 'excellence' or accept that the 'corporate university' model is the right one for them or others to exist in: some do not, in a wholesale way, relinquish themselves to the corporatised university, they understand the term 'excellence', how it works, and its ideological origins. But, I do think that the institution requires a certain level of 'buy-in' to its ideology in order for it to operate in the way that it does.

What is important to the university is that enough individuals are prepared to perpetuate the ideology of what Readings calls the “University of Excellence”. This is often done through the use of the word 'quality' - although, the term 'quality' is usually afforded to the university that operates as if it was a corporation, as opposed to the term 'excellence' which relates to the university as corporation (Readings 1999: 22). But Quality Assurance (QA) is still part of the process of measuring standards of excellence1. At the University of Leeds there is an Academic Quality and Standards Team that measures the excellence of the university's quality assurance procedures. So, even the processes that measure excellence are themselves measured. It is required that, in a kind of panoptic way, the university measures itself measuring. And, in relation to students, this works by seeing the student as a customer, and by so doing, creating a reciprocal relationship: the student also sees him/herself as customer and is, hence, supplied with a product-service - Althusser's “double mirror-connection” (2006: 122).

Readings says “Students in the University of Excellence are not like customers, they are customers.” (ibid.). So, providing that students within the institution behave like customers – they 'act', in the Althusserian sense, by participating in customer-like practices – then the university has customers rather than students. Students pay tuition fees and therefore demand a return on their investment in a product: a degree. Many students now believe in the supplier/customer dialectic which is manifest in the form of the educational institution. The phrase 'I've paid course fees and therefore I should get a better [insert university service/product/function]' is not uncommon. This equates to value-for-money. Readings says that what this does is situate (or for Althusser: 'subject') the student as “consumer”, rather than as an autonomous individual who can make their own well thought-out choices (1999: 27). This ties in to how it is essential that the ISA is able to get the subjects to “work by themselves”, which is done by making the subject think they are making a free choice, but also by “submitting them to a higher authority” and hence simultaneously requiring they relinquish that freedom (Althusser 2006: 123).

It is essential that this ideological process be seamless, opaque and 'instinctive' for its subjects: in other words, natural. Althusser says that the effect of this subjection is that it seems like a normal state of affairs, it is just the way things are (ibid.): we all live “'naturally' in ideology” (2006: 116). We take up 'positions' that, by definition, are subjected ones, without realising we are doing so. According to Althusser we are “always already subjects” (2006: 117): we are hailed as such and we take up our place in the apparatus.

Readings, too, discusses the 'natural'. He says that business management processes appear natural to those carrying them out, and he even uses the word “actions” when making this point (1999: 30). He explains that this works through the language used within management structures as part of administrative procedures; the processes adopted, and the language used to further their use, imply they are a natural path to take (ibid.). When discussing Total Quality Management Readings states: “[...] it is natural to adopt these means of planning, which are as old as humanity even though they were not formalized until the end of the 18th century.” (ibid.). While Readings is talking about procedures rather than individuals; it is the attitude of the subject adopting those procedures that naturalises their subjection due to their actions carried out in relation to them. A procedure is adopted, a material activity is carried out.

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

Althusser, Louis. 2006. 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)', Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (Delhi: Aakar Books) pp. 85-126.

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