Why would you want to live anywhere other than a university?
Why should a community be anything other than a school, whose overriding collective purpose is to contribute as far as possible in every activity to the continuing enrichment of itself, the diversity and complexity of its own knowledge and practices, as well as the general knowledge and practice of humanity as a whole?
We really must begin asking this question, together, in every situation: what are we doing here? This basic existential question, however trivial or cliche it may appear, is by and large repressed, and when we do confront it we do so in a thoroughly alienated, individual manner, failing to address the crucial notion of a common purpose or common purposes that unite us, and on the basis of which individual purposes can then carve out some autonomy.
The question of whether society is simply a sum of individuals, or whether individuals are artificially separated elements of a social integral, is beyond the point. Reducing one to the priority of the other is a fool’s errand. Yet we would be remiss to obscure the sense in which individual autonomy is, if not impossible, at least direly impoverished when its collective basis is neglected. Not only is the securing and sustaining of basic individual liberty the yield of a collective purpose, but the range and scope of that liberty is dependent on conditions that extend far beyond the agency of the individual in each case. Where the rightists emphasize to an absurd degree (and in a thoroughly un-Christian manner) the priority of individual liberty, they totally neglect the relation of individual liberty to its collective ground, whose richness determines the extent of what one can do in fact. One can be free and alone, and die starving and forgotten, or one can be free together with others, and create together a world in which the mutual exploration of liberty is compounded by the mutual furnishing of conditions for the exercise of freedom.
For Spinoza, natural right and law are not strictly opposed, such that one must renounce right upon entry into civil society. Rather, it is within one’s natural capacity, within the scope of one’s right, to limit the exercise of that capacity for the sake of a constitution of a collective body based upon a common agreement to this exercise of limitation. This, however, does not amount to a weakening of the liberty one naturally possesses as a matter of right, for upon limiting oneself in this way, what is sacrificed on the side of pre-social right is returned a thousand-fold in the form of the immense capacity of the social body as a whole, participation in which is the new and far greater right of the citizen.
Why would one wish to live anywhere other than a university? The answer is quite dishearteningly obvious, given the current diminished and embattled condition of this institution. Submitted to the brutal and unyielding whims of capital, this great institution, as much as society itself, has succumbed to a gradual destruction that should be the source of great shame for us all, or at least those of us who have enjoyed the decadent and suffocating benefits of complacency.
Make no mistake, this is not some nostalgic revery for the once idyllic condition of the university, which has now gone to waste. While universities may have once been, in many regards, greater than they are today, there are good reasons to avoid turning back. Today, more people than ever enjoy both primary and higher education, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population. The savage and arbitrary segregations whose groundless character so clashed with the spirit of the institutions riven by them are disappearing, if not altogether absent. And the progress of technological and methodological infrastructure on the one hand, and social convention and culture on the other, have done away with many of the limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, that held back the full potential of the community of learners and scholars.
Yet these gains, however great, have come at the cost of a decline almost equally impressive. This point will be taken here as self-evident, if only to spare the reader the recapitulation of what are likely horrors experienced on a daily basis. The school as a social form has become a dull and unclean instrument of capital, and despite the noble work of so many of its contemporary and historical avatars, the conditions of this work prevented such greater work they might have otherwise done.
It is not nostalgia for some now past golden age of the university, or the school more broadly, but a stubborn insistence on the continuing relevance, and even absolute importance, of the ideal that no moment in this institution’s history could have adequately embodied. This is because, as an ideal, its function is precisely to go beyond what we are really capable of, so that we might continually strive to improve ourselves and our conditions. By making ourselves the measure of our own short-falling, we might give another kind of reality to that ideal. It is not a matter of understanding history as a relation of progress toward an ideal, as if to justify the atrocities that have accompanied the genesis of our current situation. Rather, it is to ruthlessly interrogate and critique our situation at every moment, to never be satisfied, nor to rest on our laurels, soothed by the conceit that things are at least better today than yesterday.
The decline of the university is, as much that of the actual institutions themselves, that of the ideal to which they now barely relate at all. Yet perhaps, as we undertake the difficult task of contending with and contesting capital on this front amongst others, we should turn again to this ideal, and rescue it from the edge of extinction. Perhaps we could have no greater asset in this struggle than a clear idea of why we are fighting and what we are fighting for.
Marx warned of the dangers of preoccupying ourselves with ruminations of the coming society, and that our concerns instead should rest with the abolition of the existing state of things first and foremost. Yet in this he is often misunderstood: this prohibition is not a deferral in which one puts off the planning of a new society until after the cessation of the current one, as he also clearly states that communism is a name not for a new society that will emerge afterward, but is the name of the very movement that abolishes this state of affairs itself – it has no other content. In this regard, the experimental appropriation of the materials and practices which make up the university (and society at large) is not only a conceit, it is the essential complement of the struggle to change the world. We must only stipulate that such experimentation cannot occur only in imagination and dreams, but must manifest on the drawing board of the strategy meeting, it must be worked out in common and not in the mind of the loan genius, and that the planning of experimental uses must be part and parcel of the planning of the seizure of the materials in question.
So in what broad strokes can we paint the ideal of the university today? As stated above, we must always hold ourselves, collectively, to the existential fire, and never lose sight of the essentially problematic nature of our own purposes. In this regard, we can understand the university as a social form that continuously and constitutively calls into question its own purposes and the means by which it organizes itself in accord therewith. This continual submission to self-experimentation and self-research, this constitution of a social body as an ongoing research into this very constitution, is the ultimate purpose of collective self-problematization. It is at this meta-level in which not only the content of activities undertaken within the university, but the very form of the university itself becomes a research project and an ongoing collective experiment, that the contemporary university is perilously lacking.
Beyond this broadest and vaguest of outlines, we can also stipulate the following: that because the very fabric of the social body would become the subject of a research, every activity, no matter how menial, must become part of that research. To look forward to some principles that will not be fleshed out here, we can posit that an egalitarian principle (which will be defined and defended in detail in a future work) would allow that every constituent of the university body would participate in every strata of responsibility, such that everyone who eats participates in the growing, preparing, and serving of food and the custodial work that follows, that everyone who enjoys the landscape participates in its upkeep, that everyone who lives in a building participate in the maintenance and renovation of those buildings, and that everyone who shits cleans the toilet. This is not to abjure the importance of specialization, but it certainly is to steadfastly refuse using this as an excuse for insulating some from their collective responsibilities at the expense of the quality of the lives of others. Just because you aren’t a carpenter doesn’t mean you can paint a wall or sweep up sawdust. Moreover, we must remember that these activities are always undergoing a collective assessment such that the development of ways of improving the execution or distribution of tasks is as important as their performance.
Thus, the various disciplinary fields or productive arts in which the community is engaged are as important as the menial tasks whose execution by an unseen staff is normally taken for granted. To be a member of this community, this ideal university, is to engage in the production of collective life on every plane, as a worker first, and then as whatever combination of student, teacher, researcher, artist… One does administrative work in the morning, laboratory work in the afternoon, and custodial work in the evening, so to speak.
Such communities would also have to discover new dynamics in the relation between teaching and research, between professional and social relationships, between productive and non-productive labor. They would call into question the value of commuting, and focus on a new sort of micro-urbanist paradigm, be it developed within cities or in the countryside. And due to the universal nature of the egalitarian ideal on the basis of which such a social form is possible, cosmopolitanism will replace local isolationism as much as globalist homogenization.
There is far greater potential within the university ideal than is dreamt of or demonstrated in the halls of academia today, with its elitist elevation and corporatist decline. There is potential for a renewed thinking of what might constitute a social body, of what we might strive for together on this earth.