Saturday, 10 September 2011

Austerity & the University of Excellence Part 2

Discarded Phenomena at the University of Leeds.
Image CC Tina Richardson

We are not outside the university, we occupy it every day and this is the place from which any considerations for a future university will be made. However, we need to be cognisant of the problems that occur through living in a historical university: a past that refuses to completely disappear, that manifests itself in a contradictory and haunting co-presence, and that needs to be considered, first and foremost, as a place that is occupied by the people of the present. Any new way of living in the university will require an understanding of the complexity of space that the posthistoric university has inherited. We need to explore the university in an attempt to acknowledge its past, a search that may require a form of revealing to occur in order for us to understand what the university of today, and tomorrow, might mean.

What I would like to propose is a critique of today's university that helps to reveal a material life that can easily be forgotten when dealing with the abstracted notions and alienating practices associated with technological systems and knowledge generating processes. The university is a physical body existing in geographical space, occupied by people who traverse its roads, paths and corridors. To fully understand the university of today, and be able to respond to a new university, it needs to be excavated both archivally and topographically.

If we are to believe Félix Guattari, then we need to seek out modes that are counter to the dominant consciousness that appears in the form of power. All dominant powers require a particular worldview to take place in order for the status quo to be maintained. The university presents a particular outward face. This face is a consciously structured one that supports its specific messages. The university does not say everything about itself, in the same way that a business doesn't, because it would not be 'good practice'. The process of representation is a mediated one in which the university attempts to foster a like-minded view in the recipients of its representational medium, whether it be the university website, or how the campus looks.

In order that governing bodies can carry out policy, consent is the optimal reaction rather than opposition. Alternative voices are not encouraged, revolutionary ones need to be crushed or at the very least assuaged through hegemonic means; or, post event, they can be ignored entirely by being written out of history. However, these other voices and histories are still part of the body that makes up the institution as it appears today, even if they might be sidelined, for strategic reasons or otherwise. If the university is not conscious of its past, if it does not acknowledge its shadow qualities, it would be difficult for it to think of itself as a place of community, of consensus or belonging. In order to confront its unconscious the university needs to come to terms with its past-and-present relationships, especially those that stir up a sense of dissonance in the pit of the institutional stomach.

I would like to suggest that this can be done by looking for the hidden university, the one that is behind the veil of the manufactured image. It is the one that appears in the darkest part of the university: in its archives and in its lost or forgotten places. It can be found through a bottom-up method of psychogeographical exploration and archival research which will reveal a more complete university, one that can be traced in the palimpsest layers that form its spatial manifestation, and in its archival attempts at a de-prioritisation of certain data.

While we need to accept that the past still haunts the corridors of the institution, it needs to be acknowledged in its spectral manifestation. Neither should it be seen as something nostalgic, a time when ideas about the university were pure, honourable and righteous. The university always represents a mirror of society. While having the ruined signs of the ghost of university past all around us, the complexity of postmodern space - with its abyssal protocols and procedures - demands a renegotiation of that space. And I think Bill Readings expresses this most eloquently when he compares the university to an Italian city. So I will leave you with his quote:

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 non-signifying campanile induce. (1999: 127)

Related link: Austerity & the University of Excellence Part 1

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

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