Continent Crossing


Some brief reflections on the excellent continent. conference held at the National History Museum in Tirana a few weeks ago (June 6-8, 2013) on the theme of ‘Pedagogies of Disaster’;  I’m told all the papers will be collected in an open access publication by Punctum, but in the meantime some interesting debates began to emerge across the course of the three days about the role and political function of academic, para-academic, and non-academic institutions and organizations that I think are worth noting here (note: this post was given a quick copy-edit on 24th June).

Within the diversity and nuance of positions presented, the most interesting tension, for me at least, was that established between what was perceived to be something like a dominant assemblage of “academic institutions”, “philosophy”, and “technic” and the desire to escape these conditions through a counter-pedagogy sheltered within non- or para-academic organizations, attentive to or modelled upon art and the aesthetic, and orientated towards the imagination and thinking. It is perhaps possible to regard this tendency as an extension and updating of the theoretical position articulated by Christopher Fynsk in the opening address on ‘Pedagogical Countermovements’, drawing on the arguments made in The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities (2004), into the new conditions of contemporary academic labour (many of the speakers were associated with The Centre for Modern Thought or The European Graduate School and a number cited Fynsk in their papers).


IMAG0259In The Claim of Language, Fynsk makes a quasi-Heideggerian case for the defence of “fundamental research in the humanities” understood as that which proceeds from the media of language in its broadest sense (and in distinction to the research methodology of the positive sciences). This “claim of language” stands in tension to the world-historical sway of technicity and technical reasoning, described in his paper as the dominance of “technic under the motor of capitalism”. Against this, Fynsk calls for a practice of attentiveness to the poietic or “pragmatic” dimensions of language – at the very limits of knowing and representing – such that philosophy in the academy is opened up to the possibility of thinking. Under his directorship, the Centre for Modern Thought at the University of Aberdeen was founded in 2005 upon such a principle:

The designation “modern thought,” however, also points to the necessity of a kind of departure with regard to contemporary tendencies in the field of theory. …The absorption of theory by forms of cultural studies that leave aside its philosophical underpinnings and heritage has resulted in a dramatic shortening of perspective in a great deal of work in the humanities and social sciences. The reference to “modern thought” in the Centre’s title represents an effort to reverse that tendency.

Here and in his address Fynsk refers to a parting of the ways with Cultural Studies, elaborated in an interview with Simon Morgan Wortham as a critique of projects – exemplified in forms of Cultural Studies often political or critical in intent – which are governed by an “instrumental understanding of theory” and consequently foreclose the possibility of thinking the political (in terms of the claims of language and structure of representation elaborated above). In the opposition established between technic and thinking, the immediately political intent of cultural theory allies it with the former and against the latter.

In the context of the conference proceedings, one of the interesting consequences of this kind of stance is how it manifests itself as anti-institutionalism in the current generation of academics. If the current conditions of the academy might be characterized as instrumentalizing – Adam Staley Groves, contributing editor to continent. and student of Fynsk, spoke in a talk subtitled ‘Care for the Irrepressible Imagination in an Age of Technics’ of the university collapsed into technics – then the logical outcome of this commitment to non-instrumentalized thinking is that it must take leave of the university. As the number and nature of academic positions in the humanities diminishes in the face of a standardizing, fast-paced, short-term, output-driven levelling of teaching and research, this generation will  increasingly accommodate itself to – paraphrasing Tony Benn – “leaving university in order to spend more time on thinking“, the latter exemplified in organizations such as the open-access continent. journal and the ‘Pedagogies of Disaster’ conference itself. In other words, one of the unintended consequences of Fynsk’s “case for the humanities” could be the principled or else pragmatic disappearance of such thinkers from the university.


Let me lay out, then, some of my concerns with this position as crudely as possible; doing so in such polemically reductive terms will no doubt miss some of its targets but it may provide a kind of litmus test for the various intellectual positions represented.

The principle of “technic under the motor of capitalism” is a useful one for capturing the operations of modernity, but for me its meaning is ambiguous and its value depends on that which it is being opposed to. I suspect its use here expresses a certain Heideggerian emphasis upon technic rather than capitalism, such that its positive inversion would be “imagination/thinking under capitalism” rather than, lets say, “technic under the motor of communism” (the former remains Heideggerian in orientation; the latter closer to the later work of Walter Benjamin, especially his concept of “second technology”).  One concern is that the position itself might be seen to derive from an unwarranted ontologizing of – in the context of the conference – Blanchotian disaster that, taken to its extreme, evacuates any historical position for its overcoming. This occurs to the extent disaster is conceived as an epistemological rather than a historical or empirical category. A consequence of this, in the specific context of the conference itself,  is that it leads to an ethics of the human/humanities rather than a politics of education.

IMG_1328This ethics tends to manifest itself, in accordance with the opposition established between an undialectical conception of technics and thinking, in terms of a privileging of aesthetics as the sphere of non-instrumentalized thought, in its various associations with the imagination and sometimes art and literature more specifically. Such a varlorization is not, of course, unique to this position and nor is it necessarily problematic, but one of the concerns I raised in my own paper is that any uncritical adherence to the sphere of aesthetics for the positive localization of value and meaning (a move I traced back to Nietzsche’s revaluation of moral values in my talk, and which continues with Heidegger, but whose significance in modern philosophy perhaps originates with Kant) risks succumbing to a historically limited and potentially ideologically complicit position. This stands as a positive correlate of the ontologizing of the negative raised above.

Furthermore, since it is the bureaucratic institutionality of the technical university that is ethically opposed to the imagination of individual human thinkers, an obvious and consistent solution is a flight of the humanities from the institution into autonomous and self-organized spaces created on the outside. Indeed, this solution mirrors the kinds of artistic practices, communities and organizations that currently preserve much of the arts, a legacy of their bohemian inflection at the advent of industrial capitalism. This doesn’t, of course, overcome many of the material exigencies of such organizations, since open access online journals still have website costs, even if they are run on a voluntary basis, and conferences are still parasitic upon institutions in terms of space and funding (especially if, like the Pedagogies of Disaster conference, they are admirably free to both speakers and audience). Going by the logos on the Pedagogies of Disaster schedule, for example, the conference itself has received some kind of support from bm:ukk (the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture), Statens Kunstrad (the Danish National Arts Council), the European Cultural Foundation (Netherlands), and Fondacioni Shoqeria E Hapur Per Shqiperine (the multibillionaire George Soros funded Open Society Foundation for Albania); indeed, the predominant emphasis on culture and art shared by many of these organizations may itself be symptomatic of a broader ideological privileging of arts and culture referred to above.

Of course, as with the art-world itself, such para-academic status doesn’t inure such organizations from the malign influence of capitalism per se, or – given the hoops presumably jumped through to secure such support – that of technic under the motor of capitalism. There is the obvious danger it follows the unfolding of its contemporary logic with regard to thinking: the uncoupling of teaching and research, the separation of entertainment from scholarly expertise (encoded, for all its flaws, in peer review), of productive dialogue across generations, perhaps even of the intellectual disciplining that accompanies institutionality (where students are sometimes required to do modules in philosophy or theory). I wouldn’t necessarily want to defend all of these aspects of higher education, in part because I don’t share the same commitment to thinking in the humanities, and if the argument regarding institutional technic is correct they are, presumably, precisely what is already at stake in the attack on the university itself, but it is not clear how evacuating the institution provides any better opportunity for preserving them.

A large part of what underlies these various aspects of academia is the sociality of learning: studying together and alongside others. My worry is that the model of thinking being proffered replaces one kind of flawed sociality with another, and that precisely at the moment universities are – were – on the verge of becoming more interestingly diverse social spaces, the commitment to thinking – perhaps because of the very solitary activity apparently inscribed in this practice – threatens to reduplicate or even recover an unintentional elitism. Thinking doesn’t start from nothing, of course, and so the forms of sociality it most immediately circumscribes are para-academic ones again: a replication of those forms and networks of the institutions it has sought to transcend. What prevents such isolation or narrow networking is the emergence (over the last 15 years) of new and relatively cheap digital technologies, and it is here that the dialectical relationship between technic and technology would have to be addressed from the perspectives of new forms of both thinking and sociality.

Cultural Studies

It is from the alternative assemblage of concepts laid out above – a historical attentiveness to technology; the material conditions of sociality; the new forms of thinking produced within para-academic  spaces – that we might return to the political disavowal of Cultural Studies mentioned earlier, whose own (inter-)disciplinary formation emerges within the unconventional context of Adult Education. The argument that Cultural Studies evacuates the possibility of thinking the political, because its attentiveness to the political is instrumental, risks disregarding the political form, content and function of Cultural Studies itself. In 1930 Walter Benjamin, often belittled as a “cultural theorist” rather than a “philosopher”, suggested that: 

…subjects that have long been investigated and appropriated by scholars need to be emancipated from the forms in which such scholarly acquisition took place, if they are still to have any value and any defined character today. […] The whole pernicious spectrum of critical methods must disappear to make way for more enterprising researchers, on the one hand, and above all for a less banal, more considered learning, on the other. In these areas, in short, we should not look to research to lead a revival in teaching; instead it is more important to strive with a certain intransigence for an – albeit very indirect – improvement in research to emerge from the teaching. […] And if the alternative approach adumbrated above will be able to deliver the goods, this will only be because in principle teaching is capable of adapting to new strata of students in such a way that a rearrangement of the subject matter would give rise to entirely new forms of knowledge. (SW2, pp.419-20)

Benjamin’s comments provide an anticipatory gloss of the origins of what was to become Cultural Studies in the late 1940s and 1950s: teachers had to respond to the new strata of mature, largely working class students being taught in colleges of adult education by eschewing a Leavisite conception of the cultural expertise of an educated minority (a position itself reflecting the movement of academic professionalization of English Literature within the universities). As an aside, Mark Freeman’s keynote at the University of Westminster’s recent conference on ‘Educating Mind, Body and Spirit: Adult Education since 1838‘ made a number of important points about the general tendency to neglect the significance of adult education within the history of education, and the reasons – relating to its often extra-institutional or para-academic status – why this may be the case.

Whereas Leavis effectively denied the possibility of “mass culture” as an oxymoron, based upon his own aversion to the mechanical effacement of the individual and the particular, this different pedagogical context forced an attentiveness to the products of mass culture and to more interdisciplinary modes of analysis, incorporating politics, sociology, economics and history. As a consequence, it enacted what has elsewhere been characterized as a “philosophizing beyond philosophy”, involving the transformation of academic thought (and especially philosophy) into new historical IMAG0267and social forms. As I argued in my own paper, it is the ephemerality and topicality of such disciplines that has been the target of critics since at least Nietzsche onwards, who lamented the impoverishment of philosophical education into the politicality of “journalism”. For Nietzsche, and to some extent Heidegger after him, this ephemerality is closely associated with the sociological emergence of the masses themselves, in terms of both the Paris Commune of 1871, and the beginnings of the State-led massification of schooling in Germany.

What is at stake here is whether thinking itself is to be immured from transformation under such conditions and more specifically whether the forms of thinking encapsulated in the humanities can or should be rescued from their institutional environment unchanged. The failure to ask this question threatens, I worry, to reduplicate the conservatism of the academy by becoming transfixed in terms of the where rather than the how of modern thought. This has consequences for the humanities both inside and outside the academy: intellectuals might abandon the partially massified spaces of the university whilst simultaneously extending the conservatism of its intellectual elitism into new public spheres. I raised some of my own attempts to respond to these issues in my paper, where I constructed a Benjaminian counter-image of the Inhumanities against that of the Humanities. As I suggested there, I am concerned that any uncritical appeal to the attractive alternatives of the aesthetic and artistic risks taking a quasi-Nietzschean turn that deepens but does not resolve these concerns about egalitarianism. As a consequence, I think it necessary to turn the critical and destructive impetus of nihilism onto the positive values of the aesthetic and, beyond that, the pedagogical itself. This position that has many problems of its own, the most pressing of which is the question of its own complicity with the forces transforming the Humanities and Higher Education.

Zombie Zones of Action

Purely from the perspective of my own specific interests, I found papers by Oliver Feltham on ‘Desocializing the School: Education and the Action Zone’, John Van Houdt on ‘The Rhetoric of Disaster: Surviving the End of the Humanities’, Nick Skiadopoulos on ‘The University Must Be Transcended’, and Denisa Kera on ‘Hackerspaces and Universities’ particularly enjoyable and stimulating.

Oliver Feltham articulated a politics of education which he developed in relation to his concept of the “action zone”, drawing on the work of Badiou and Aristotle. Beginning with the ancient antagonism between philosophy and philosophy, Feltham conceptualized the emergence of the School as the triumph of philosophical education, orientated towards schooling for a “better society”. However, anticipating the future of the School manifested today in initiatives such as Khan Academy and MOOCs, Feltham argued we are on the verge of the realization of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, in which traditional education is inverted such that students learn online in the private space of the home and the teacher supervises “homework” in the public space of the school. Against this contemporary “de-schooling of society” , Feltham proposed a “desocializing of the school”, recalling the performative and theatrical aspects inherent to the philosophical School’s original entanglement with Theatre. This involves subtracting school from the society, not into a void of individualism but a “zone of action”. The latter is developed in his Anatomy of Failure: Philosophy and Political Action (2013) as the space of multiple, incomplete, and overlapping agents and actions with unintended consequences, partially modelled on the New Model Army’s Putney Debates of 1647 and theorized through Aristotle’s conception of phronesis or practical “prudence”.

This intersection of, on the one hand, the pedagogical and the social and, on the other, thought and something like savoir faire raises important issues, especially with regard to reconsidering the function or purpose of education today. In his paper on ‘Surviving the End of the Humanities’, John Van Houdt asked some similarly significant questions about knowing and acting in education. Rejecting the predominant narrative of zombie fiction in which the “soft values” associated with the humanities are considered useless against the hard-nosed survival skills imbued by technical expertise and unsentimental pragmatism, Van Houdt expanded on and reversed this theme, calling for our own “survival manual” for the end of the humanities. I would add that given that most recent zombie fiction represents the contemporary re-imagining of the State of Nature, which – as Marx pointed out in his Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy – largely provides creation myths for the individualism of emerging bourgeois liberalism, the fear of the supposedly mindless and violent masses makes some ironic sense in the context of contemporary Higher Education and the burgeoning communities of institution-less scholars “gone wild”. If the price to pay for “surviving” this educational State of Nature is a commitment to the (bourgeois/liberal) humanities, it is pertinent to point out that the alternative is not necessarily that of “dying” but becoming transformed into a member of the undead masses, whose thinking so little resembles that of solitary, academic thought.

Nick Skiadopoulos’ call for the university to be transcended also proposed a kind of educational State of Nature, although one that called into question the necessity of continuing the disciplines of the humanities in these newly transcended spaces; Denisa Kera drew on the Hackerspaces initiative as perhaps a kind of practice and model of such transcending. To point out, however, that the university continues to exist as a principle site of the production of social inequality, and that para-academic activity is parasitic upon it, demands not so much a transcending (which might always leave the boundaries intact) as a dissolving: the Humanities (or something like the Inhumanities) as a peripheral zone expanding outwards, incorporating inwards, destabilizing itself and its disciplines in such a movement. In his early essay on ‘The Life of Students’, Benjamin introduces the following image:

The task of students is to rally round the university, which itself would be in a position to impart the systematic state of knowledge, together with the cautious and precise but daring applications of new methodologies. Students who conceived their role in this way would greatly resemble the amorphous waves of the populace that surround the prince’s palace, which serves as the space for an unceasing spiritual revolution – a point from which new questions would be incubated, in a more ambitious, less clear, less precise way, but perhaps with greater profundity than the traditional scientific questions. (SW1, p.43)

I’ve never been fully sure of the underlying meaning of Benjamin’s ambiguous image here but, when read in conjunction with his later writings on a more radically politicized pedagogy, it is possible to interpret these “amorphous waves of the populace that surround the prince’s palace” as intent on its revolutionary overthrow. In this context, “rallying round the university” becomes far more ironic: if this is what Oliver Feltham means by “desocializing” perhaps we might push the image even further and try to imagine zombie zones of actions.

World War Z


2 thoughts on “Continent Crossing

  1. Pingback: Matthew Charles blogs about Pedagogies of Disaster | Department of Eagles

  2. Pingback: Utopia and Its Discontents | Benjamin//Pedagogy

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