Monday, 29 June 2009

Performativity & Excellence in the Institution

In the recent past the narrative attached to value used to be around the problem of 'proof', in relation to the 'science' of a subject; and the quality of 'competence', in regards to those teaching it (Lyotard). Both Lyotard and Readings discuss how postmodernity's (post-history's)1 value is now attributed to “performativity” (Lyotard) and “excellence” (Readings).

The production of proof, which is in principle only part of an argumentation process designed to win agreement from the addressees of scientific messages, thus falls under the control of another language game, in which the goal is no longer truth, but performativity – that is, the best possible input/output equation. (Lyotard 2004: 46).
[…] excellence is not a fixed standard of judgement but a qualifier whose meaning is fixed in relation to something else. An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane. (Readings 1999: 24).

Performativity and excellence become empty measuring systems for Lyotard and Readings2. They transfer value to a system outside of the pedagogic process. Both Lyotard and Readings discuss how the qualities of performativity and excellence dovetail neatly with the favourite tool of the bureaucrat: technology. Readings states: “excellence marks nothing more than the moment of technology's self-reflection.” (1999: 39). Technology and bureaucracy justify their own and each other's existence in the production of data that confirms the criteria formulated by their own internal system. Maximising input/output ratios becomes the 'prime directive' for the administrative arm of the university, the student is turned consumer and teaching becomes oriented around 'quality assurance' and 'key performance indicators'. All the boxes have been ticked in the ledger that is 'the university in ruins'.

It is clear from the discussion so far that the criteria of performativity applies to all disciplines in the university and not just cultural studies, but I wanted to briefly introduce the postmodern university from the perspective of the discourse of the university as a corporate entity. The administrative process is oriented around a form of delivery that has changed from producing 'free-thinking' individuals to a system that converts the knowledge gained by the student into measurable outcomes that are readily translatable into a recognisable skill set: one that has commercial value in the marketplace. This corporate discourse gets taken up in the everyday communication of the university, from departmental budget meetings to casual conversations between students. While my dissertation is not concerned with discourse per se, but rather articulation, these terms are connected when the issue of debate is introduced. Also, it is important to state here, that I am using the term 'articulation' to mean both “Forming or meeting a join” and “That speaks or communicates” (Oxford English Dictionary), but specifically how it is used in sociology, which I shall be coming to shortly when I discuss Stuart Hall, Ernesto Laclau and their theories of articulation. The debate I have just alluded to, will be that which cultural studies is required to enter into when justifying itself in the schema of performativity, or in general in the university when it is expected to validate itself as a 'proper' discipline by explaining what it is, and in particular what it does.

1 There is potentially much to discuss about the notion of 'postmodernity': what it is, whether it is just the current incarnation of capitalism (Frederic Jameson) or even if it exists at all. I do not want to get sidetracked by these problems here and shall make a generalised statement that I am concerned with the period following World War II up till now, but in particular the 1960s onwards in regards to education.
2 Readings demonstrates how ridiculous 'excellence' is by providing an example of an award for “excellence in parking” being received by parking services at Cornell University. This award was not for organised, efficient parking but rather for their success in restricting parking by reducing vehicle access. (1999: 24).


Lyotard, Jean-Fran├žois. 2004. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

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