Benjamin on Simmel’s critique of the theory of value

Regarding your sceptical view of Simmel: isn’t it time he got some respect as one of the ancestors of “cultural Bolshevism”? …I recently had a look at his Philosophy of Money …if one disregards its basic idea, very interesting things are to be found in the book. I was particularly struck by the critique of Marx’s theory of value (Benjamin to Adorno, SW4 209)

Marx’s Theory of Value

The petty-bourgeois-idealist theory of labor is given an unsurpassed formulation
in Simmel, for whom it figures as the theory of labor per se. And with this, the
moralistic element – here in antimaterialist form – is registered very clearly (Benjamin, AP X6; X6a)

One may therefore assert in very general terms that, from the standpoint of the value to be compensated, the distinction between mental and manual labour is not one between mental and material nature; that rather the reward is ultimately required in the latter case only for the internal aspect of work, for the aversion to exertion, for the conscription of will power. Of course, this intellectuality, which is, as it were, the thing-in-itself behind the appearance of work and which forms its interior value, is not really intellectual but resides in emotion and the will. It follows from this that it is not co-ordinated with mental labour but rather is its basis. For at first the objective content of the intellectual process, the result separated off from the personality, the demand for reward is produced not in it but in the subjective function guided by the will that it embodies, the work effort, the expenditure of energy that it requires for the production of this intellectual content. In that an act of the soul is revealed to be the source of value not only from the standpoint of what is taken up but also of what is achieved, physical and ‘mental’ labour contain a common—one might say, morally—value grounding base through which the reduction of labour value as such to physical labour loses it philistine and brutal materialistic appearance. This is roughly the case with theoretical materialism which acquires a completely new and more seriously discussable basis if one emphasizes that matter itself is also a conception, not an essence which, outside us in the absolute sense, stands opposed to the soul but which in its cognizability is completely determined by the forms and presuppositions of our intellectual organization. (Simmel, PM 428)

Of course, with these reflections …Simmel is playing devil’s advocate, for he does not want to admit the reduction of labor to physical labor. Indeed there is also, according to him, a valueless labor that still requires an expenditure of energy. “This means, however, that the value of labor is measured not by its amount but by the utility of its result!” Simmel goes on to reproach Marx, as it appears, for confusing a statement of fact with a demand. He writes:

This demonstrates the fundamental connection between the labour theory of value and socialism, for socialism in fact strives for a constitution of society in which the utility value of objects, in relation to the labour time applied to them forms a constant. In the third volume of Capital, Marx argues that the precondition of all value, of the labour theory too, is use value. Yet this means that so many parts of the total social labour time are used in each product as come in relation to its importance in use. It thus presupposes a qualitative unified total societal need—accordingly, to the motto of the labour theory, that labour is indeed labour and as such is of equal value, is here added the further motto, that need is indeed need and as such of equal value—and the equivalence of utility for all labour is reached only in so far as only that amount of labour is performed in each sphere of production that exactly covers the part of each need that is circumscribed by it. On the basis of this presupposition of course no labour would be less useful than any other. For if one holds, for example, that today piano playing is a less useful task than locomotive construction, then the reason for this lies merely in the fact that more time has been applied to it than the real need subsequently required. If it were limited to the measure outlined here, then it would be just as valuable as locomotive construction —just as the latter would also be useless if one applied more time to it, that is built more locomotives than are subsequently needed. In other words, there is, in principle, no distinction in use value at all. For if a product momentarily possesses less use value than another (that is if the labour applied to the former is less valuable than that applied to the latter), then one can simply continue to reduce labour to its category, that is the quantity of its production, until the need for it is just as great as that of the other object, that is until the ‘industrial reserve army’ is completely wiped out. Only under these conditions can labour truly express the amount of value of a product.The essence of all money, however, is its unconditional interchangeability, the internal uniformity that makes each piece exchangeable for another, according to quantitative measures. For there to be labour money, labour must create this interchangeability, and this can occur only in the manner already described; that is, it creates exactly the same degree of utility and this, in turn, is attainable only by the reduction of labour for each production need to that amount by which the subsequent need is exactly as great as that of any other. Of course, in so doing the actual labour time could be valued still higher or lower. But now one would be certain that the higher value, derived from the greater utility of the product, indicated a proportionally more concentrated amount of labour per hour. Or conversely, it would be the case that as long as the hour partook of a higher value in the concentration of labour, it would also contain a higher amount of utility. However, this obviously presupposes a completely rationalized and providential economic order in which each labour activity regularly resulted from the absolute knowledge of needs and the labour requirements for each product—that is, an economic order such as socialism strives for. The approximation to this completely utopian state of affairs seems to be technically possible only if, as a whole, only the immediately essential, unquestionably basic life necessities are produced. For where this is exclusively the case, one work activity is of course precisely as necessary and as useful as the next. In contrast, however, as long as one moves into the higher spheres in which, on the one hand, need and estimation of utility are inevitably more individual and, on the other, the intensity of labour is more difficult to prove, no regulation of the amounts of production could bring about a situation in which the relationship between need and labour applied was everywhere the same. On these points, all the threads of the deliberations on socialism intertwine. At this point it is clear that the cultural danger with reference to labour money is in no way so direct as it is usually judged to be. Rather, it stems from technical difficulties in holding constant the utility of things, as its basis for evaluation in relation to labour and as its agent of value—a difficulty that increases in relation to the cultural level of the product and a difficulty whose avoidance, of course, must limit production to that of the most primitive, most essential and most average objects. (Simmel, PM 430-431)

With this critique, compare the counter-critique of this standpoint by Korsch, X9,1 (Benjamin, AP X6;X6a)

On the doctrine of value: …This in opposition to Simmel; compare X6a (Benjamin, AP X9,1)

The idea that there is an equality inherent in all kinds of labour, by which economists are entitled to regard qualitatively different kinds of labour such as the labour performed by the spinner, the weaver, the blacksmith, or the farm-hand, as quantitatively different portions of a total quantity of general “labour” is so little the discovery of a natural condition underlying the production and exchange of commodities, that this “equality” is, on the contrary, brought into existence by the social fact that under the conditions prevailing in present-day capitalist “commodity production” all labour products are produced as commodities for such exchange. In fact, this “equality” appears nowhere else than in the “value” of the commodities so produced and exchanged. The full development of the economic theory of labour value coincided with a stage of the historical development, when human labour had long ceased to be, as it were, “organically” connected with either the individual or with small productive communities and henceforth under the new bourgeois banner of Freedom of Trade, every particular kind of labour was treated as equivalent to every other particular kind of labour. It was just the advent of those particular historical conditions that was expressed by the classical economists when they traced back in an ever more consistent manner the “value” appearing in the exchange of commodities to the quantities of labour incorporated therein, though most of them actually believed that they had thus disclosed a truly “natural” law applying to every reasonable productive society formed by human beings when they have reached their age of maturity and enlightenment. There is, in spite of this vague idea of a “natural” equality lingering in the minds of some early bourgeois economists, no validity whatever in the naïve objection which now for almost a century has been raised against the objective theory of value by pointing to the real inequality of the various kinds of labour. Those well-meaning defenders of Marxism who, on the other hand, attempt to correct the apparent “flaw” in the Marxian doctrine of labour value by actually trying to represent the useful labour in every particular labour product as a strictly measurable quantity, merely present the sad picture of one who holds a sieve beneath the billy-goat while another keeps busy to milk him. According to Marx’s critical teaching, the natural difference of the various kinds of productive human labour is by no means wiped out by the fact (unquestionable in itself) that a major part of the differences in rank, presumably existing between many kinds of labour in present-day bourgeois society, rest on “mere illusions, or, to say the least, on differences, which have long ceased to be real and continue only by a social tradition.” The particular kinds of labour performed in the production of the various useful things are, according to Marx, by their very nature different, and just this difference is a necessary premise for the exchange of the labour products and the social division of labour brought about by it. Only on the basis of a qualitative division of labour arising spontaneously from the variety of social needs and the variety of kinds of useful labour performed to meet those needs, arises, by a further development, a possibility that this qualitative difference, for the purpose of an ever wider exchange, may gradually yield its place to the merely quantitative differences which the various kinds of labour possess as so many portions of the total quantity of the social labour expended in the production of all products consumed (or otherwise disposed of) at a given time within a given society. It is just this condition which has been first expressed theoretically by the “law of value” as formulated by the classical economists. Those minor followers in the wake of the great scientific founders of Political Economy, no longer accustomed to such audacity of scientific thought, who have later pathetically bewailed the “violent abstraction” by which the classical economists and Marxism, in tracing back the value relations of commodities to the amounts of labour incorporated therein, have “equated the unequal,” must be reminded of the fact that this “violent abstraction” does not result from the theoretical definitions of economic science, but from the real character of capitalist commodity production. The commodity is a born leveller. Over against this, it appears as a relatively unimportant fault in the construction of existing capitalist society that the theoretical principle of exchange of equal quantities of labour is no longer strictly realized in each single case but only, perhaps, on a rough average. (Korsch, Karl Marx,

Notes: Benjamin is impressed by Simmel’s critique of value in the Philosophy of Money because Simmel’s critique is directed at (in an idealist, i.e. ethical and individualist, rather than materialist, i.e. economic and collectivist, form), and so reveals the limitations of, the bourgeois articulation of the theory of value evident in socialist formulations after 1848, including in the Gotha Program and aspects of the development of socialism in the Soviet Union. Simmel’s critique essentially concerns the limitations of the theory of value as it applies to what is now termed immaterial labour. To the extent the theory of value holds a conception of  value related to the magnitude of abstract labour, this is grounded in the equality of the use values of (primarily material) objects. The “technical difficulties in holding constant the utility of things,” however, is that this equality only applies to the production of “the immediately essential, unquestionably basic life necessities ..the most primitive, more essential and most average objects,” a difficulty that therefore increases “in relation to the cultural level of the product”. In relation to the notion of labour, Korsch’s materialist response to this view clarifies that Marx’s concept of abstract labour derives not from the violence of his theory but “the real character of capitalist commodity production”. In relation to the notion of use value, Marx was clear, in his critique of the Gotha Program, that use values derive both from human labour and from natural forces. Indeed, to the extent that labour is the manifestation of the natural force of human labour power (not a supernatural conception of human labour per se), all use values could be said to derive from nature). To disregard the relationship to nature and assign it a supernatural creative force permits an obscuring of how the ownership of the material conditions of labour (a relationship to natural forces) permits capitalism to “enslave” human labour to technology. Consequently, the Gotha Program regards those who do not work as living and acquiring culture only at the expense of the labour of others (i.e. of being idlers).  

The Bungled Reception of Technology

The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant ethics of work was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program already bears traces of this confusion, defining labor as “the source of all wealth and all culture.” Smelling a rat, Marx countered that:

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning.  And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Let us now leave the sentence as it stands, or rather limps. What could one have expected in conclusion? Obviously this: “Since labor is the source of all wealth, no one in society can appropriate wealth except as the product of labor. Therefore, if he himself does not work, he lives by the labor of others and also acquires his culture at the expense of the labor of others.” Instead of this, by means of the verbal river “and since”, a proposition is added in order to draw a conclusion from this and not from the first one. (Marx, CGP

However, the confusion spread and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: ”The savior of modern times is called work. The …improvement …of labor constitutes the wealth which is now able to accomplish what no redeemer has ever been able to do.” This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism. Among these is a conception of nature which differs ominously from the one in the Socialist utopias before the 1848 revolution. The new conception of nature, which with naive complacency is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat. Compared with this positivistic conception, Fourier’s fantasies which have so often been ridiculed prove to be surprisingly sound. According to Fourier, as a result of efficient cooperative labour, four moons would illuminate the earthly night, the ice would recede from the poles, sea water would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, is capable of delivering her of the creations which lies dormant in her womb as potentials. Nature, which, as Dietzgen puts it, “exists gratis,” is a complement to the corrupted conception of labor. (Benjamin, CH XI)

On the bungled reception of technology (Benjamin, AP X7a,1)

The tendency towards making final ends illusory appears less crass, but more dangerous and insidious, in the advances and evaluation of technology. If the relationship of technological achievements to the meaning of life is, at best, that of a means or an instrument or very often no relationship at all, then, from among the many causes of the failure to recognize technology’s role here, I only wish to mention the splendour that it has autonomously developed …this derives from the same old metaphysical mistake: to transfer the attributes that the elements of a whole possess in relation to each other to the whole …It will probably appear most strange to the enthusiasts of modern technology that their attitude is based on the same formal mistake as that of the speculative metaphysician. And yet such is the case: the relative height that the technical progress of our time has attained in comparison with earlier circumstances and on the basis of the recognition of certain goals is extended by them to an absolute significance of these goals and this progress. It is true that we now have acetylene and electrical light instead of oil lamps; but the enthusiasm for the progress achieved in lighting makes us sometimes forget that the essential thing is not the lighting itself but what becomes more fully visible. People’s ecstasy concerning the triumphs of the telegraph and telephone often makes them overlook the fact that what really matters is the value of what one has to say, and that, compared with this, the speed or slowness of the means of communication is often a concern that could attain its present status only by usurpation. The same is true in numerous other areas.This preponderance of means over ends finds its apotheosis in the fact that the peripheral in life, the things that lie outside its basic essence, have become masters of its centre and even of ourselves. Although it is true to say that we control nature to the extent that we serve it, this is correct in the traditional sense only for the outer forms of life. If we consider the totality of life, then the control of nature by technology is possible only at the price of being enslaved in it and by dispensing with spirituality as the central point of life. The illusions in this sphere are reflected quite clearly in the terminology that is used in it and in which a mode of thinking, proud of its objectivity and freedom from myth, discloses the direct opposite of these features. To state that we conquer or control nature is a very childish formulation since it presupposes some kind of resistance, a teleological element in nature itself, an animosity towards us. Yet nature is merely indifferent and its subjugation does not affect its own regularities. In contrast, all notions of domination and obedience, conquest and subjugation have a proper meaning only if an opposing will has been broken. This is merely the counterpart to the expression that the effectiveness of natural laws exerts an inescapable coercion upon things. In the first place, however, natural laws do not act at all since they are only formulae for the activity of specific materials and energies. The naivety of this misunderstanding of natural scientific methods—the assumption that natural laws direct reality as real forces just as a sovereign controls his empire —is on the same level as believing in God’s direct control over our earthly life. The alleged coercion, the necessity to which natural events are supposed to be subject, is no less misleading. But the human mind feels chained to laws under these categories only because stirrings that seek to lead us in another direction exist. Natural events as such are not subject to the alternatives of freedom and coercion, and the ‘must’ injects a dualism into the simple existence of things that only makes sense to the conscious mind. Although all this seems to be just a matter of terminology, it does lead astray those who think superficially in the direction of anthropomorphic misinterpretations and it does show that the mythological mode of thought is also at home within the natural scientific world view. This concept of human control over nature supports the self-flattering delusion of our relationship to nature which could be avoided, even on the basis of this comparison. Indeed, the objective picture certainly suggests a growing domination of nature by man; but this does not yet determine whether the subjective reflex, the psychic significance of this historical fact, cannot run in the opposite direction. One should not be misled by the tremendous amount of intelligence that created the theoretical foundations of modern technology and which, indeed, seems to put Plato’s dream of making science reign supreme over life into practice. Yet the thread by which technology weaves the energies and materials of nature into our life are just as easily to be seen as fetters that tie us down and make many things indispensable which could and even ought to be dispensed with as far as the essence of life is concerned. It has been asserted with reference to the sphere of production that the machine, which was supposed to relieve man from his slave labour in relation to nature, has itself forced him to become a slave to it. This is even more true of the more sophisticated and comprehensive internal relationships: the statement that we control nature by serving it implies the shocking obverse meaning that we serve it in so far as we dominate it. It is quite erroneous to believe that the significance and intellectual potential of modern life has been transferred from the form of the individual to that of the masses. Rather, it has been transferred to the form of the objects: it lives in the immense abundance, the marvellous expediency and the complicated precision of machines, products and the supra-individual organizations of contemporary culture. Correspondingly, the ‘revolt of the slaves’ that threatens to dethrone the autocracy and the normative independence of strong individuals is not the revolt of the masses, but the revolt of objects. Just as, on the one hand, we have become slaves of the production process, so, on the other, we have become the slaves of the products. That is, what nature offers us by means of technology is now a mastery over the self-reliance and the spiritual centre of life through endless habits, endless distractions and endless superficial needs. Thus, the domination of the means has taken possession not only of specific ends but of the very centre of ends, of the point at which all purposes converge and from which they originate as final purposes. Man has thereby become estranged from himself; an insuperable barrier of media, technical inventions, abilities and enjoyments has been erected between him and his most distinctive and essential being.There has never been an age in which such an emphasis on the intermediate aspects of life in contrast to its central and definite purposes was totally alien to that age. Rather, since man’s mind is completely focused upon the categories of ends and means, it is his lasting fate to oscillate between the contradictory demands of means and ends. The means always implies the internal difficulty of using a force and awareness that are not really meant for it but for something else. However, the meaning of life does not really lie in realizing the permanent reconciliation of conditions for which it strives. In fact, the vitality of our inner life may indeed depend upon the continuation of that contradiction, and the styles of life probably differ fundamentally in terms of the intensity of this contradiction, the preponderance of the one or the other side and the psychological form of either one. In the case of the present age, in which the preponderance of technology obviously signifies a predominance of clear intelligent consciousness, as a cause as well as an effect, I have emphasized that spirituality and contemplation, stunned by the clamorous splendour of the scientific-technological age, have to suffer for it by a faint sense of tension and vague longing. They feel as if the whole meaning of our existence were so remote that we are unable to locate it and are constantly in danger of moving away from rather than closer to it. (Simmel, PM 486-491)

It is the great distinction of Fourier that he wanted to open the way to a very different reception of technology. (Benjamin, AP X7a,1)

The subjects for these notations [of prehistoric magical practice] were humans and their environment, which were depicted according to the requirements of a society whose technology existed only in fusion with ritual. Compared to that of the machine age, of course, this technology was undeveloped. But from a dialectical standpoint, the disparity is unimportant. What matters is the way the orientation
and aims of that technology differ from those of ours. Whereas the former made the maximum possible use of human beings, the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first technology might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The of the first technology are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures), The origin the second technology lies at the point where, by an unconscious ruse, human beings first began to distance themselves from nature. It lies, in other words, in play. Seriousness and play, rigor and license, are mingled in every work of art, though in very different proportions. This implies that art is linked to both the second and the first technologies. It should be noted, however, that to describe the goal of the second technology as “mastery over nature” is highly questionable, since this implies viewing the second technology from the standpoint of the first. The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity. The primary social function of art today is to rehearse that interplay. This applies especially to film. The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily. Dealing with apparatus also teaches them that technology will release them from their enslavement to the powers of the apparatus only when humanity’s whole constitution has adapted itself to the new productive forces which the second technology has set free. The aim of revolutions is to accelerate this adaptation. Revolutions are innervations of the collective-or, more precisely, efforts at innervation on the part of the new, historically unique collective which has its organs in the new technology. This second technology is a system in which the mastering of elementary social forces is a precondition for playing [das Spiel] with natural forces. Just as a child who has learned to grasp stretches out its hand for the moon as it would for a ball, so humanity, in its efforts at innervation, sets its sights as much on currently utopian goals as on within reach. For in revolutions, it is not only the second technology which asserts its claims vis-a-vis society. Because this technology aims at liberating human beings from drudgery, the individual suddenly sees his scope for play, his field of action [Spielraum], immeasurably expanded. He does not yet know his way around this space. But already he registers his demands on it. For the more the collective makes the second technology its own, the more keenly individuals belonging to the collective feel how little they have received of what was due them under the dominion of the first technology. In other words, it is the individual liberated by the liquidation of the first technology who stakes his claim. No sooner has the second technology secured its initial revolutionary gains than vital questions affecting the individual-questions of love and death which had been buried by the first technology-once again press for solutions. Fourier’s work is the first historical evidence of this demand. (Benjamin, WA (2) 26)

The description of the labor process in its relation to nature will necessarily bear the imprint of its social structure as well. If the human being were not authentically exploited, we would be spared the inauthentic talk of an exploitation of nature. This talk reinforces the semblance of “value,” which accrues to raw materials only by virtue of an order of production founded on the exploitation of human labor. Were this exploitation to come to a halt, work, in turn, could no longer be characterized as the exploitation of nature by man. It would henceforth be conducted on the model of children’s play, which in Fourier forms the basis of the “impassioned work” of the Harmonians. To have instituted play as the canon of a labor no longer rooted in exploitation is one of the great merits of Fourier. Such work inspirited by play aims not at the propagation of values but at the amelioration of nature. For it, too, the Fourierist utopia furnishes a model, of a sort to be found realized in the games of children. It is the mage of an earth on which every place has become an inn. The double meaning of the word < Wirtschaft> blossoms here: all places are worked by human hands, made useful and beautiful thereby; all, however, stand, like a roadside inn, open to all. An earth that was cultivated according to such an mage would cease to be part of “a world where action is never the sister of dream.” [Baudelaire, “Le Reniement de Saint Pierre”, Complete Verse, 228] On that earth, the act would be kin to the dream. (Benjamin AP J75,2)

…the last war …was an attempt at new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology. But because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education above all the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species is just beginning his. In technology a physis is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind is now preparing to embark on incalculable journeys into the interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength as they did earlier on high mountains or at Southern seas. The “Lunaparks” are a prefiguration of sanatoria. The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call “Nature”. In the nights of annihilation of the last war the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to the very marrow by the discipline of this power, no pacifist polemics will save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation. (Benjamin, OWS 103-4)

Notes: It is unclear if Benjamin accepts or questions Marx’s insistence that “labour becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth” on the condition that humans behave as owners towards nature. He is, however, certainly critical of any technocratic reduction of progress to the “mastery of nature” rather than, say, the simultaneous redemption of both humanity and nature. He associates the former with a problematic conception of nature in the socialism of Josef Dietzgen and others after the revolutions of 1848, which, Benjamin implies, also informed the dialectical materialism of Leninism; he associates the latter with the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier and the early Marx, that holds a conception of “labour which, far from exploiting nature, is capable of delivering her of the creations which lies dormant in her womb as potentials”.  It is this problematic conception of nature that leads to a problematic conception of labour which is responsible for the “bungled reception of technology” in vulgar Marxism. Again, Benjamin turns to Simmel’s Philosophy of Money to articulate a critical conception of technology. The technocratic error lies, Simmel argues, in mistaking the progressive accomplishments of the technological means with those of the ends: “Although it is true to say that we control nature to the extent that we serve it, this is correct in the traditional sense only for the outer forms of life [i.e. objective processes]. If we consider the totality of life [i.e. the interweaving of objective and subjective processes], then the control of nature by technology is possible only at the price of being enslaved in it and by dispensing with spirituality as the central point of life.” A belief in the technological “mastery of nature” by humanity reveals how a “mythological mode of thought is also at home within the natural scientific world view,” to the extent that it anthropological conceives of nature as intentionally resisting our control, when it is entirely indifferent to our attempts at subjugation and so can be said to neither succumb nor resist. Nietzsche was therefore wrong to speak of a slave revolt of morality in terms of the revolt of the masses against the individual, Simmel suggests. Rather, modernity is characterized by a revolt of the object and an enslavement of human spirituality to machines and their products: the pursuit of the mediating function of means itself rather than the human ends pursued. “What nature offers us by means of technology is now a mastery over the self-reliance and the spiritual centre of life through endless habits, endless distractions and endless superficial needs …Man has therefore become estranged from himself”. The development of this false conception of nature-labour-technology leads to imperialism and fascism. In One-Way Street, Benjamin provides a pictorial expression of this slave revolt of technology: the First World War was an “immense wooing of the cosmos …enacted for the first time on a planetary scale …in the spirit of technology” in which “technology betrayed humanity and turned the bridal bed into a blood bath”. 

The conception of technology as “the mastery of nature,” Benjamin argues, belongs to the mythical practice of a “first technology” fused with ritual and concerned with the maximum possible use of human beings. In opposition to this an alternative conception of “second technology” as the indispensable ordering or interplay of the relationship between nature and humanity: “the aim of revolution is to accelerate” the adaptation of the new collective corporeality of the masses to the productive forces which technology has the potential to liberate. Second technology leads to a conception of labour no longer characterized in terms of the mastery of nature and founded instead on its amelioration. Such revolutionary innervations of the masses – a slave revolt of the masses in solidarity with objects – where first demonstrated in the general strikes in Germany in the 1920s: such revolutions (and specifically their refusal of exploited work not as a means to improve the conditions of exploitation but as the practice of non-exploited work itself) hinted as the transformation not merely of society but of nature, including human nature, itself. As Klossowski, the translator of the French version of Benjamin’s work of art essay recalls, Benjamin’s interest in Fourier’s utopian socialism was directed towards a “liberated industrial production, [which] instead of subjugating affectivity, would allows its forms to flourish and organise its exchange, in the sense that work would be made the ally of avid desires, and would cease to be the punitive recompense for having them” permitting the “reorganisation of society in terms of affective classes.” 

The latter returns us to Benjamin’s interest in Simmel’s critique of the limitations of the theory of value: a defense of immaterial, and specifically affective, labour; a defence of unproductive labour, to the extent productivity is restricted to a narrow conception of socially necessary use values; a reorganisation of social labour beyond a “workerist” ethic of production; a conception of a collective technological relationship to nature that emancipates rather than enslaves humanity, including the liberation of current physiological limitations pertaining to human bodily nature, including birth, love and death. 



Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year: Part 2

In the first part of these reflections on Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman YearI looked at how Professor Cathy Small’s pop-ethnographic immersion into undergraduate life at Northern Arizona University might be considered an example of a minor academic genre of disciplinary reflection that bridges the perceived gap between research and teaching within higher education. By choosing to take ‘student culture’ as the site for her anthropological research, Small not only provides an engaging, entry-level introduction to anthropology but also provides anthropological insights relevant for teaching and learning more generally. Most notably, she notes how the academy’s idealized vision of ‘student culture’ as primarily a learning community has become fragmented by the competing demands of working and consumer lifestyles (the domination of abstract labour), one of the effects of which is to transform the activity of individual learning into something more “work-like” as students are required to work more efficiently at being “students”. In this second part, I want to consider the implications of this in relation to the idea of communities of learning in the context of the professionalization of social networks more generally.

3. Learning Communities

If student culture has become ‘professionalized’ as another facet within the fragmented demands of working life, what happens to the academic communities that academics idealize as the imagined basis of student culture? In a recently published article on the history of teaching excellence, I traced the emergence of the idea of teaching excellence within the English educational policy to what Bill Readings characterized as the growing “Americanization” of global higher education (Readings 1996: 4), and situated this in the context of the influence of Ernest Boyer’s re-conceptualization of scholarship (and so the teaching-research nexus) in response to theories of human capital and prompted by anxieties over the need to develop a learning society.

One aspect of such Americanization that I didn’t have time to talk about in that article is the influence of Boyer’s emphasis on “communities of learning” in the Carnegie Foundation’s  Campus Life: In Search of Community (1990). Although Boyer wasn’t the only or the first to discuss communities of learning, the practice of which can be dated in the US back to Alexander Meiklejohn in the late 1920s, Tinto (2003: 7, n.1) attributes their recent popularity to a series of reports and studies in the 1980s and 1990s, including Alexander Astin’s Achieving Educational Excellence: A Critical Assessment of Priorities and Practices in Education (1985) and Boyer’s College: The undergraduate experience in America (1987). I have traced the influence of the latter’s  work upon American and British Higher Education policy, first as US Commissioner of Education in the late 1970s, where he had sought to shift federal priorities from mere quantitative access to education towards the qualitative promotion of educational excellence across the sector, linked to the increasing demands of what he referred to as the learning society, and then as the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1980s.

As Cathy Small points out in My Freshman Year (44), the Carnegie Foundation’s Campus Life: In Search of Community responds to the same issues of the social and cultural fragmentation of the student body that she had experienced in her own project. Boyer attributed a ‘declining quality of life on campus’ to the fragmentation caused in part by a growing and increasingly diverse student body:

During the last fifty years …enrollments have exploded… Women, minorities, and older students have enrolled in larger numbers, making the nation’s campuses intellectually richer and culturally more diverse. However, strains and tensions associated with change have also become apparent in campus life …It was in this climate that The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in cooperation with the American Council on Education, launched a study of campus life …Many of the issues faced by colleges and universities reach far beyond the campus. America seems to be increasingly divided, racial tensions seem to be increasing, the gap between rich and poor has widened, and self-indulgence is celebrated, while service is undervalued. However, when all is said and done people do need one another. No one can make it alone. If colleges and universities cannot find common goals, if higher education cannot overcome the intellectual and social separations that so diminish the quality of life on campus, what can be expected from society at large? But, if purposefulness, openness, justice, discipline, caring, and celebrativeness can become hallmarks of campus life, not only will the integrity of higher education be affirmed, but perhaps renewal of the nation can also be realized. (Boyer 1990: 1-5 )

In response to a declining sense of national cohesiveness – the hallmark of capitalist modernity, it should of course be noted, since at least Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy – the Carnegie Foundation proposed six principles of an effective learning community that could provide the model for wider cultural unity: to be educationally purposeful (the sharing of academic goals and work between students and staff to strengthen teaching and learning), open (the uncompromising protection of freedom of expression and civility), just (the honouring of the sacredness of the person and the pursuit of diversity), disciplined (the acceptance of group obligations and the guidance of well-defined governance procedures), caring (the sensitive support of the well-being of each member and the encouragement of service to others), and celebrative (the affirmation of the heritage of the institution).

At the heart of many of these principles is a vision of the recognition and reward of teaching excellence, understood in terms of active, critical and lifelong learning fostered within learning communities:

Still, as the first priority, a college should be committed to excellence in education, and college, at its best, is a place where students, through creative teaching, are intellectually engaged …And yet at a college or university of quality, the classroom should be the place where community begins. Educator Parker Palmer strikes precisely the right note when he says, “Knowing and learning are communal acts.” If we view student life from this perspective, then strengthening community rests not just with counselors, chaplains, residence hall supervisors, or the deans, but also with faculty who care about students and engage them in active learning. With this vision, the great teachers not only transmit information, but also create the common ground of intellectual commitment. They stimulate active, not passive, learning in the classroom, encourage students to be creative, not conforming, and inspire them to go on learning long after college days are over. We urge, therefore, that colleges and universities reward not only research and publication, but great teaching, too. (Carnegie 1990: 12)

Although Boyer (1987: 15) claimed he did ‘not wish to romanticize the notion of “College as Community”,’ his reference to Parker Palmer’s To Know As We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (1983) attests to a deeply spiritual ‘recovery of community’ (to quote the title of Parker’s preface to his work), one that would seem indebted to Boyer’s and Parker’s shared Christian faith (Jacobsen & Jacobsen, 2014). Indeed, Parker’s rejection of an objectivist model of education for the ‘risky business’ of a living encounter between subjects (Parker 1990, Parker 1998: 16, Parker 2015: 9-10) anticipates more recent work by Gert Biesta and is perhaps rooted in a similar Christian existentialism (cf. my own engagement with Biesta’s work here:

This spiritual ‘renewal of the nation’ through the ‘recovery of [the learning] community’ – a moral economy that underpins Boyer’s own political economy of human capital – also suggests the social limits of Boyer’s educational vision, which precedes from the family and culminates in a vision of individual character (cf. Boyer 1996: 4-8). Roth and Lee (2006: 28) have pointed out similar problems in recent theorizing and implementation of learning communities and the associated idea of communities of practice, which are ‘artificially fitted into dualistic epistemologies that reducing knowing and learning to the individual within the disciplines of psychology or to the collective in the sociology of education’. The critical theorist Walter Benjamin, as I’ve described elsewhere, regarded these limitations as inherent to bourgeois educational theory, which he claimed revolved in an undialectical manner around the two poles of psychology and ethics.

As Roth and Lee argue (2006: 28), this idealistic and individualistic conception of learning communities overlooks a number of problems: there is little consensus in the scholarship regarding what exactly constitutes a learning community; learning rarely involves a single, homogeneous community of practice but usually several distinct communities with different practical motives; and the totality of exchange relations that characterize any community in wider society is often absent within formal education. In other words, recent scholarship on learning communities has a tendency either to generalize the term in such a way that it merely characterizes something largely omnipresent within formal education and so undistinctive (for the purpose of their statistical analysis of National Survey of Student Engagement scores, for example, Zhao and Kuh (2004: 9) define a learning community as ‘a formal program where groups of students take two or more classes together’) or else to capture distinctive developments that are more disciplinarily specific and so unrepresentative of learning as a whole (‘most of the handful of multiple-institution studies that have been reported,’ Zhao and Kuh (2004: 8) point out, ‘are from the two-year college sector or focused on students in specific disciplines such as engineering,’ where the development of learning communities involves a shift away from ‘expecting students to come up with the “right” answer which is characteristic of traditional pedagogical approaches such as the large lecture class’ to ‘peer learning and interaction’).

As Roth and Lee (2006) point out, attempts to measure the efficacy of learning communities revert to individualized metrics of grade increase – and one would expect, in the near future, earnings increases – that overlook a larger sense of the wider social impact of learning communities, or even of higher education in general, for those that don’t experience them, or differentials between different kinds of learning communities or levels of education, since members of an institution or a society can’t all be in the same learning community or enjoy the same “elite” education without undermining the nature and cohesion of that community or institution itself. To make the obvious point, analyses need to reflectively incorporate methodologies capable of demonstrating that grade or wage differences produced by the presence of learning communities, or education more generally, aren’t actually the result of a negative impact upon those lacking or regarded as lacking such experiences or credentials. To the extent that the promotion of learning communities expresses a sense of wider social fragmentation, it is hard to imagine that these can be overcome by educational means, in the way Boyer imagines, because education fails to collectively and cohesively address the root causes of this fragmentation and is likely to exacerbate such divisions.

Small suggests in My Freshman Year that some kinds of learning communities may also contribute to the very fragmentation of the academic body they are intended to overcome. As Small argues, there can be a ritual function to certain kinds of teaching practices, that through their very performance attempt ‘to establish the perception of the classroom’ according to a powerful ‘shared American ideal of community: a place of equality, informality, intimacy, and reciprocity’ (93). This can be seen in the obligatory, round-robin class introductions and small-group discussions and presentations that permeate learning in higher education, activities that – as effective and significant as they are – reassert the value of the individual and the small group at the expense of the larger community precisely because there is no practical possibility of larger community. Indeed, the international students Small speaks to identify ‘the frequency of group [work,] projects and presentations’ as characteristic of a distinctively American academic approach’ (82).

Indeed, the multiplication of these community-building groups actually makes it more difficult to cohere into a larger whole:

…efforts at building community [often] compete with the demand for choice… Because requiring common experiences is vastly unpopular…AnyU, like many universities today, encourages community through elective participation… The proliferation of event choices, together with the consistent message to “get involved,” and the ever-available option of dropping out, creates a self-contradictory system. Students are confronted with an endless slate of activities vying for their time. Every decision to join something new pulls at another commitment, fragmenting the whole even further. Not only people but also community are spread thin …With varying degrees of success, this was the pattern of “community involvement” that operated at various levels of the university: a multiplicity of voluntary activities, a handful of participants at each, and renewed efforts to create new activities that were more relevant and attractive, resulting in an even greater proliferation of choices and fragmentation of the whole …They genuinely want to have a close community, while at the same time they resist the claims that community makes on their schedule and resources in the name of individualism, spontaneity, freedom, and choice. (43-47)

This suggests, perhaps, that the ideal of the learning community, preserved as a residual, ritualistic and collective memory within education as a response to wider social transformations, is no longer adequate to the mass system of higher education produced by those very social transformations. Or, to recontextualize the words of the German cultural critic and philosopher Siegfried Kracauer (1995: 326), truth is threatened only by the naïve affirmation of educational values that social changes have rendered unreal, which therefore deflect attention from the external damages of society onto the private individual; under these circumstances, the educational experience of fragmentation, disorder and distraction is closer to the truth of social reality today than any spiritual invocation of community.

4. The Social Network

For Kracauer, as for Walter Benjamin, these broader social changes were not simply the result of, but nonetheless often received their clearest expression in, the newest technology. Taking a cue from Kracauer’s and Benjamin’s analyses of the affect of cinema on the modern work of art, Small’s insights about communities of learning and their difficulties may be analysed in the changed context of the ‘social network’ encapsulated by contemporary digital media.

Moving beyond Small’s own research, what I’d like to speculate here is that her insights from 2002 can be seen to anticipate not merely the way new digital social media and networks quickly came to dominate contemporary student culture, exacerbating the division, fragmentation and distraction that the focus on community had sought to overcome, but also often originated out of the context of campus life she was in the process of examining. If one intellectual history of social media, for example, can be traced from American social psychologist Stanley Milgram (and even, via Milgram’s use of the Californian F-scale, to Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, Sanford, Fromm and the Frankfurt School) and his “small world” experiment with its purported ‘six degrees of separation’ (Travers and Milgram 1969) to the corporate entrepreneurialism of (1997) and Friendster (2002), this skyrockets in the R&D networked culture of post-millenial universities. Milgram sought to develop the ‘theoretical machinery needed to deal with social networks,’ demonstrating through empirical research that such networks are ‘in some sense tightly woven, full of unexpected strands linking individuals seemingly far removed from one another in physical or social space’ (Travers and Milgram 1969: 441 & 426; others such as Kleinfield (2002), have questioned the scientific validity of his claims). Milgram’s (1984) own infamous experiments concerning obedience to institutional structures of authority and the “cyranic illusion,” in which an interlocutor fails to detect that a speaker is relaying the words of another transmitted by hidden radio, further suggest the extent to which such social networks might also function asocially, that is, coercively, deceptively or instrumentally.

Facebook, for example, was infamously developed by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zukerberg from his 2003 program “face mash,” which compiled photographs of Harvard students from hacked university ID images and compared for students to rank in terms of attractiveness. An earlier project, CourseMatch, enabled students to make decisions about courses based on which and how many students had enlisted on specific courses and Zuckerberg also expanded on face mash by compiling images of Augustan-era paintings and allowing other students to share notes before an art history exam:

In one class—one of his stupid Cores called Art in the Time of Augustus—he’d supposedly fallen so far behind that he’d almost forgotten about an exam that was going to be worth a large percentage of his overall grade. He’d had no time to study for the damn thing— so he’d reportedly figured out a unique way of dealing with the situation. He’d created a quick little Web site where he posted all the artwork that was going to be on the exam and invited people in the class to comment—effectively  creating an online crib sheet for the test. He’d essentially gotten the rest of the class to do the work for him—and he’d aced the exam, saving his grade. (Mezrich 2009: 73)

Xiaonei (now known as Renren), meaning “on-campus,” was founded by students at Tingjing and Tsinghua universities in 2005, and for a long time ‘primarily targeted and restricted its use to college students’ (Martinze-Aleman and Wartman 2008: 4). Evan Spiegel’s Snapchat app may have began life in 2011 as a final project in a Stanford product design class but it infamously originated in the context of sexting anxieties. These ‘dorm room companies’ certainly built upon the technological and corporate resources of existing social media and capital investment that had begun to flood into universities in the wake of concerns over automation and the learning society, but the specific success of their innovations emerged from the – sometimes misogynistic, alienated and asocial – characteristics of contemporary campus life, what Small herself encountered as an increasingly networked, professionalized and instrumentalized “culture”.

‘When I asked students in interviews whether they felt they had a “community” at AnyU, most said yes,’ Small writes:

But what they meant by community were these personal networks of friends …small, ego-centred groups that were the backbone of most students’ social experience in the university …There were few open invitations in these exchanges …Among members of the same network, however, there were constant interactions… for many students, their social lives at the university consisted of repeated contacts with the same people, who constituted that student’s personal network. Once networks were formed, usually by the end of the freshman year, students tended to stay with their groups, maintaining intense and frequent interactions with their network and more superficial and sparse contacts with others. The way that student social life is formed necessarily affects issues of diversity’ (55 -58)

To be clear, I am not suggesting that social media is responsible for the kind of fragmentation described but rather that it emerges as a response to the same changes in social conditions that produce such fragmentation and often functions as a highly effective response to it. For the same reason, nor am I suggesting that social media could be used as a way to overcome such fragmentation and recover the lost sense of community sought by Boyer and others. Just as the competing demands of work and consumer culture intrude upon the time, space and community of learning, so the personal networks Small describes remain multiple and diffuse, and, with the proliferation of social media, can continue to  endure virtually, further permeating the university. While Small argues (143) that the coercive social norms that permeate learning could be identified with the mode of discourse Michael Moffat (1989) characterized as “Undergraduate Cynical,” it remains important to assess to what extent these norms have developed as distinctive expressions of the professionalization of the social per se. 

5. Social Capital

Milgram’s work on the small-world problem heralded ‘what was to become a major area of study in the sociology of communication: the study of social capital’ (Lunt 2009: 125) and much recent scholarship (Ellison, Steinfield, Lampe 2007, Cadima, Ojeda and Monguet 2012, Newton 2013) has sought, often in rather uncritical ways, to analyze social networks of learning in terms of social capital. The latter has been defined by, among others, Robert D. Putnam (1995: 65):

By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – “social capital” refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

For Putnam (2009:19), social capital refers to connections among individuals and the social networks that arise from them, whereas human capital refers to individuals. As Putnam (1995: 72, quoting Wuthnow) points out, although the rise of small support groups may be considered a counter-trend to the perceived decline of social capital associated with community, these networks of small groups (which might be said to mirror the rise of new kinds of learning communities through seminars and small groups projects) might actually represent the opposite:

Small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social
contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come
if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never
criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied ….We can imagine that
[these small groups] really substitute for families, neighborhoods, and broader
community attachments that may demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they
do not.

Similarly Cadima, Ojeda and Monguet’s (2012: 297) research suggests that social networks might hamper learning, to the extent that learners tend ‘not to go to the channel of the highest quality of information, but rather to go to the channel of the highest accessibility,’ that ‘interaction is much more common within a group than inter group, so people in the same group tend to have the same ideas and opinion, to interpret the past in the same way and to have similar expectations of the future’ and so that ‘some students were structurally advantaged or disadvantaged as a result of their network positions.’ Rather than addressing the attempt to foster the social capital of social networks of learning in a more critical vein, they instead conclude that an understanding of social network analysis itself might provide a powerful tool for students in relation to learning communities, because ‘enhancing students’ awareness about social structure can have potential effects on their performance’ (Cadima, et al. 2012: 302-3).

This conclusion is based on research related to the improved performance – in terms of evaluation, promotion and retention – of company executives educated in the network of social capital through corporate leadership programs, but only for those actively engaged in the learning process (Burt and Ronchini 2007: 1180). This suggests not that all social networks yield improved learning performance but that an awareness of the role of social networks permits some students to harness social capital more instrumentally; contrary to the claim such networks better engage students in the learning process, it also suggests that such awareness is predicated on the active engagement in learning that such networks are themselves proposed to produce. One might even surmise that the performance of active engagement – whether faked or genuine – is the precondition for success not because it contributes directly to gains in learning but because it is rewarded by peers and educators (and the failure to exhibit such engagement – whether genuinely or cynically – is punished). The professional student, the learner who works at performing learning most efficiently, is acquiring the soft skills, including manipulation of social capital, demanded of human capital in the professional workplace.


In light of such claims, it is odd to consider that a small number of recent commentators have proposed an unlikely source for the recovery of a learning community in the increasingly fragmented world of social networks. Tokumitsu (2017) has recently argued in defence of the lecture, on the basis that what is often overlooked in standard criticisms of the lecture – that students retain little information – is the very social dimension that, I have suggested, learning communities are praised for:

Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion. The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear …While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience …Like a metronome, lectures regularly punctuate the week, grounding other elements of students’ lives by, for instance, encouraging regular sleep schedules and study periods, which can also reduce anxiety and stress. …If public lectures did not draw sizable crowds, then museums, universities, bookstores, and community centers would have abandoned them long ago. The public knows that, far from being outdated, lectures can be rousing, profound, and even fun.

To this, we might add, in the context of the preceding discussions of some of the pedagogic limitations of social networks of learning with respect to individuality, accessibility and diversity, that (good) lectures – somewhat paradoxically – might offer a renewed time and space for collectivity, equality and independent thought. Tokumitsu argues that (good) lectures encourage a process of active listening; the critical theorist Oskar Negt (Krause and Negt 2006) goes further and suggests that the opportunity for ‘unburdened listening’ also contributes to a process of public thinking not only for the lecturer but also the student:

In this way, I could fascinate people with what I call public thinking. I have learned this from Adorno …Adorno spoke based on his notes almost without preparation, just like following one of my favourite texts, Kleist’s “On the gradual formulation of ideas while speaking”. This has always induced students to also think by themselves and learn …Myself and others have learned much more through such lectures than by any other means. The seminars with Horkheimer and Adorno for example with about 20, 25, 30 people were really depressing and painful, because the pressure to not only look intelligent but also to say intelligent things, has put students under so much stress. In contrast unburdened listening (entlastetes Zuhören) depends on some measure of anonymity and this anonymity has something productive about it.

Ironically, perhaps one of the most misattributed quotes concerning education not as a process of knowledge transmission but intellectual engagement – ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’ – most likely derives from Plutarch’s (1927) lecture ‘On Listening to Lectures’, where he insists that ‘right listening is the beginning of right living’. Negt may be referring not only to Kleist but to Plutarch when he insists on the value of unburdened listening; for Plutarch, the hearer, no less than the speaker, has a function to perform in the lecture, ‘for he is a participant in the discourse and a fellow-worker with the speaker …just as in playing ball it is necessary for the catcher to adapt his movements to those of the thrower and to be actively in accord with him, so with discourses, there is a certain accord between the speaker and the hearer, if each is heedful of his obligation.’ The ‘mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth,’ Plutarch insists, and if a person ‘comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own …he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.’

Or, as Small suggests, gesturing to what I want to suggest as the principle of the “good-enough teacher”:

Most seniors will agree that they’ve forgotten much of what they learned from classes, even from the semester before. Looking back on college, they will have claimed to have learned more about themselves, their abilities, and their relationships than about subject areas. And when all is said and done, they will be satisfied with their college experience: 87 percent will rate it “good” or “excellent”.’ (131)

In the third and final part of these notes, I want to return to some of the limitations of Small’s own anthropological insights in the context of the relationship between the teacher and the student not a hierarchical distinction between two separate identities but as a spectrum or medium along which it is possible for both teachers and students to traverse.

Works Referenced

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Boyer, Ernest L., 1990. ‘Characteristics of a Community of Learning’.

Boyer, Ernest L., 1996. ‘The Commitment to Character: A Basic Priority for Every School.’ Update on Law-Related Education 20:1, 4-8.

Burt, Ronald S. and Ronchi, Don, 2007. ‘Teaching Executives to see Social Capital: Results from a field experiment’. Social Science Research 36, 1156-1183.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990. Campus Life: In Search of a Community. Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation.

Jacobsen, Douglas and Hustedt Jacobsen, Rhonda, 2014. ‘The Religious Roots of Ernest L. Boyer’s Educational Vision: A Theology of Public Pietism’, Christian Higher Education, 13:1, 17-28.

Kleinfeld, Judith, 2002. ‘The Small World Problem’. Society 39:2, 61-66.

Krause, Monika and Negt, Oskar, 2006. ‘The Production of Counter-Publics and the Counter-Publics of Production: An Interview with Oskar Negt. Interviewed by Monika Krause’. European Journal of Social Theory 9/1: 119-128.

Lunt, Peter, 2009. Stanley Milgram: Understanding Obedience and its Implications. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Martínez-Alemán, Ana and Wartman, Katherine Lynk, 2009. Online Social Networking on Campus: Understanding What Matters in Student Culture. New York and London: Routledge.

Mezrich, Ben, 2009. The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook. A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. New York: Doubleday.

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Nathan, Rebekah, 2005. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. London, Penguin Books.

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Moment of Danger for the Last Survivors of Critical Theory at Adorno’s Funeral

Disagreeable situation. The funeral service in the chapel of Frankfurt Cemetery, where Theodor W. Adorno’s coffin was laid out, was thoroughly bungled by Max Horkheimer. He refused to accept his friend’s death as a fact. And as an omen of his own approaching death there was nothing about it that seemed to him worth commemorating. He did not want to give an opinion to what music Adorno would have approved of or considered appropriate.*

Toward the end of the event, the speeches were of undisciplined length and one of the side doors of the chapel was opened. A large group of students could be seen possibly ready to use violence, with the student leader Hans-Jürgen Krahl at their head. They glanced in. Ushers closed the doors. Did the student want to disrupt the funeral? “Kidnap” the coffin as a provocation and appropriate Adorno – as part of a Critical Theory which, in fact, they had never disowned – as a dead man?

The coffin was brought outside on the hand barrow. THE OLD MEN OF CRITICAL THEORY crowded demonstratively around it. Would they have stood a chance against the kidnappers? They didn’t think of that. The crowd of students followed along a parallel path; no one watching them knew, whether their attitude was threatening or whether they wished to show sympathy and respect for the deceased. The group itself hadn’t even fully discussed it.

A thundery downpour surprised the funeral procession when it was halfway. The heads of the SCHOLARLY MEN wet, their clothing, too, soaked. No one from “Critical Theory” had an umbrella. Further lengthy speeches at the graveside. Slow work by the cemetery workers as the coffin was lowered into the grave. There were still handfuls of earth, individual bunches of flowers to be thrown down. The lines to pay respects to the widow. All of this with a wet head.

To save the minds who later made their way to the house of the Suhrkamp publisher Siegfried Unseld, I order large pots of WARM BEER to be prepared. According to Grimms’ Fairy Tales this is a precaution against catching cold. The warmth and the alcohol get the aging blood moving through the veins again. Meanwhile three student assistants are drying the heads of the SCHOLARLY ELDERS with hair dryers from the household. And so they were saved.

For the moment they were saved: not emotionally, but physically. Twenty years later the planet discharged the last of these wise thinkers. The world was never the same again.

* Gretel Adorno, Theodor’s wife, remained apathetic, passive. She was the only person who could have imposed a better program. She blamed herself for his death. For so many years she had watched over the genius in every crisis, and then for one moment this summer, although no one around her confirmed it, she had been inattentive. With the result that this man died.

– Alexander Kluge, The Devil’s Blind Spot: Tales From the New Century. Trans. Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 2002), pp.307-8.

During the pre­vious semester, Adorno’s decision to involve the police in clearing student oc­cupiers from the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School’s depart­mental unit at the University of Frankfurt) had caused controversy. While some regarded Adorno’s reliance on the authorities as a betrayal—a siding with the enemy against the common cause of social progress—others tended to agree with Adorno’s assessment of the radical activism of some students as misguided or even, in the words of his former research assistant, Jurgen Habermas, as a form of “left-wing fascism.” …In a patricidal reversal that pitted parts of the Student Protest Movement and the New Left against one of their theoretical fathers, Adorno was sub­jected to a series of institutional and personal attacks at least since 1967. and leaflets proclaiming that “Adorno as an institution is dead” (“Adorno als In­stitution ist tot“) were circulated during his lectures… But the most notorious incident was yet to come. During an April 1969 assault, an instance of “planned tenderness” which has come to be known as the “breast action” (Busenaktion), three female sociology students wearing long leather jackets invaded the lecturer’s podium, sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head, attempted to plant lipstick kisses on his cheeks, ex­posed their naked breasts to him, and provoked him with erotic pantomimes. Adorno, attempting to protect himself with his briefcase, proceeded to exit “Hörsaal V” (“Lecture Hall V”). This attempt to embarrass Adorno publicly was a sign of the larger structure of misunderstanding between Adorno and those student activists who had grown increasingly impatient with their theoretically-minded teacher’s reluctance to engage in street interventions and other forms of political activism.

  • Gerhard Richter, Monatshefte, Vol. 94, No. 1, 2002 

The last surviving member of the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theory, Leo Löwenthal, died on 21st January 1993.