The University at Albany and the Gathering Outrage
June 21, 2011
One of the governing fears of academic life—and one of the governing assumptions of administrative policy—is that 'the public,' variously defined, would not particularly mind if the humanities disappeared. The attendant politics, which Raymond Williams once called “adolescent,” is that the administration of our common life is a wasteland of special interests and squandered energies, which can only corrupt the pure work of writing and research.
Here, I argue that the crisis of the humanities is not a crisis of public relations, but of administered dispossession. Academics should know that the terms of the fight are more vital and complex than the banal realpolitik of competing media strategies. Following the budget cuts in New York state—which affected five programs and departments in the humanities—public commentary either forcefully protested the decision or lamented its sad necessity. There has been no shortage of public sympathy for the state of the humanities: the long decline of what Jeffrey Williams has called the “welfare state university” has always been a shame, and no one, it seems, is prepared to argue otherwise.
The problem is less the perceived value of the humanities than the economic processes which determine the social space in which it exists. These processes are, increasingly, those of dispossession and devaluation: on the one hand, we have the elimination of departments; on the other hand, we have the rise of the adjuncts, the transient, indebted, semi-employed and scarcely unionized laborers who constitute the majority of instructors in higher education in the United States today. The current defunding of the SUNY system is but one instance in this long trajectory. Such crises are not new, nor are they limited to public higher education: for more than a generation, life in New York State is life interrupted. The widespread awareness of this potential trauma colors the lives of New Yorkers; it is fundamental to the culture and will form the core of any political movement to come.
Precarious lives are lives on the brink of outrage. But the political issue is never just the outrage, but its organized expression. Similarly, for the agents of dispossession, our focus should not be on ideology or personality, but the social groups for whom dispossession is a boon. To find such groups, I wish to consider two locally produced videos. In one, we have the spectacular outrage of students and workers; in the other, the calm and banal competence of a technocratic administrator. These videos suggest that mass media representation is not the horizon of politics, but one of its constitutive elements. They also suggest that politics is not, as is often assumed, a matter of news cycles and rival propaganda, but a dialectic of organizational structure and lived experience, energized by movements, classes, and groups.
First, let me turn to an extended interview by Albany Student Television with University at Albany President Philip. The immediate curiosity of this long interview is that Philip bothered to participate at all: the dry, scarcely viewed exchange is difficult to locate, and was not picked up other media. It is evidence less of Philip's desire to open himself to public critique, than his insistence on performing his technocratic expertise. This, it turns out, is the ideal forum for such a performance: the professionalism of the young reporter, coupled with the unusual, barely edited length of the exchange, allows Philip to present the scope of his expertise. Philip appears beyond the spectacle, in an adult world of difficult choices and No Easy Answers. This is, then, a calculated effort to appear as unspectacular as possible. Philip goes to the media to perform the absence of mediation: here, we see, is the man, unfiltered, passionately objective, desperately rational, a good person in a sticky situation.
Philip emphasizes his own determination; and he is not wrong to do so. As Bourdieu has taught us, an administrator like Philip, as an agent within an institution, is both structured and structuring: as the recognized president of a public university, there is only so much he can be expected to think, and only so many choices he can be expected to make. At the same time, it would be a tragedy—and a profound misunderstanding—if such agents of transformation were excused as responsible adults, completing the necessary work of prudent dispossession. The decision is both personal and impersonal, as are its effects; and culpability must be located in Philip himself, as well as the structure Philip is battling to reproduce.
One shuttles, then, from subject to structure, to locate the forces gathered behind the decision, and the forces gathering in response. The clip suggests that Philip is the victim of circumstance, a man bound by the limits of his time. But Philip is far from an objective mediator: he is not merely the president of the university, but the representative of a bloc within that university, with particular aims and beliefs about both education and government. The introduction of 'enterprise' into the public university is not a bulwark in a time of crisis, but an attempt to actively re-design what constitutes the work of teaching and research. The de-funding we are witnessing is not an event—nor an aftershock, nor the inevitable swing of the political pendulum—but a process of profound redistribution and socio-economic transformation. Regardless of whether he acknowledges the charge, President Philip is an agent of such changes, and a representative of the group for whom such changes are made.
The important point, however, is that Philip's technocratic assurance is a strategy against outrage, and should be taken as proof that such outrage is effective. Our second clip gives us this outrage in the apparent spontaneity of protest. Opening with the dances and cheers of students, and punctuated with chanting, the video suggests both anger and discipline: the lines of chanters snaking through the food-court, the protestors occupying the administration buildings, and the speeches of student leaders each suggest the slow construction of a movement. Here, behind the excitement, is the backdrop of long meetings and plans, the banal work of administering a resistance.
To legitimize their passion, the protestors must give the appearance of structure; to humanize his structure, Philip must give the appearance of passion. Just as the protestors emphasize their organization, President Philip iterates his deeply felt regret. In both videos, the concern for the public is salutary: the video by Save Our SUNY has been viewed less than two dozen times; the interview with Philip is buried in the institution's website, in the archives of the Students' Association. This is not evidence of a failed media strategy; rather, it is evidence that propaganda does not constitute the horizon of this fight. What matters, instead, is the mobilization of groups. For the protestors, the task is to argue that every student is willing to rise and join the organization, which might then threaten not only President Philip but the legislature as a whole. For Philip, the task is to present a front of passionate but disinterested competence, in order to dissolve the anger of those affected, and to neutralize the forces gathering in response.
Politics remains a dialectic of lived experience—here, outrage—and the work of organization, while historical change remains the activity of contesting groups. To assume the permanence of structures, the idiocy of a manipulated public, or the passivity of the labor force is to misunderstand the processes of historical change. From faculty, responses to the cuts often oscillate between an absurd voluntarism and a vulgar fatalism, either provocative calls for radical re-imagination, or lamentations on a changing world. As we learn from CLR James, “as so often, the truth does not lie in between” (x). The conditions, as always, are not of one's choosing; and general resistance cannot be willed into being. But we do know that the process of transformation produces outrage: this is where the efforts of organization will begin.
The university is not an island in a sea of economism, nor an ivory tower above the general political soot; but neither is it a factory or a business. The politics of the university is the politics of a disappearing inheritance, undoubtedly the common experience of our moment. This, then, is the familiar suggestion with which I will close: to reintroduce class, less as a category of identity, than a statement of historical trajectory. Once again, two groups appear: those for whom life is rapidly improving, and the majority, for whom life getting relatively worse. Class always referred to both an identity and a trajectory: a recognized position within a structure, and a place in that structure's rocky reproduction. Class remains the fundamental category with which to pierce Philip's economism, and it clarifies the stakes in the gathering outrage, where work figures less than the production of non-work, and the production of value figures less than the distribution of misery and waste.