IT, Again

By Bradley Harrison,2014-11-13 15:23
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IT, Again

    IT, Again: How to Build an Ethical Virtual Institution

    Gary Hall

    On experimenting

    “IT, Again” arises out of a long-standing engagement on my part with

    questions of digitization. Fittingly for a text composed and concerned with what, for shorthand (and for reasons that will soon become clear), I‟ll call information

    technologies (IT), “IT, Again” is woven out of the links and connections between a number of nodal points of interest: capitalist neoliberal economics, the knowledge economy, deconstructive pragmatics, papercentrism, the crisis in tenure and publishing, the academic gift economy, ethics, politics, disciplinarity, judgement, cognition, and the institution of the university. “IT, Again” is “experimenting” with these points and issues in the sense Samuel Weber has given to the term “experimenting”, whereby “the present participle involves a movement that is first of all, repetitive, second of all, never conclusive or contained, third, on-going and futural,

    1and fourth and finally, actual and immediate.”

    My reading of Weber‟s work here does not therefore aim to come full circle

    to produce a concept of itself”, but rather “doubles up into a language that can no

    2longer be assigned to a single, authoritative speaker or to a reliable, truthful voice.”

    In other words, I will not be attempting to capture the meaning of Webers work in

    this chapter; nor to engage polemically with other interpretations of it; nor even to produce a deconstructive reading that shows how Webers texts put forward

    irreconcilable positions that are different from, and in many ways opposed to, those they are generally portrayed, or portray themselves, as espousing. I will rather be


experimenting, by analysis and performance, with the way in which Webers own

    “concepts… operate in a singular situation”--in this case, that of the development and

    institution of a cultural studies electronic archive. It is with a certain “deconstructive

    pragmatics arising out of Webers ideas on how to (re)think the institution of the

    contemporary university that this chapter will be experimenting in particular. In this way, Webers writings will be treated much as he himself treats those of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man: as texts whose import only is accessible to a reading that

    moves [them] elsewhere--not least through the notions of repetition, iteration and iterability Weber discusses in a number of books and articles, among them his own early essay, It.”

    Experimenting with the university: Weber on instituting the institution

    What kind of “experimenting” with the institution of the university can be undertaken in the current politico-economic climate, in which the forces of capitalist neoliberal economics are increasingly transforming higher education into an extension of business? Rather than propose a return to the kind of paternalistic and class-bound ideas associated with Matthew Arnold and John Henry Cardinal Newman which previously dominated the university--ideas which view it in terms of an elite cultural training and the reproduction of a national culture, with all the hierarchies and exclusions around differences of class, race, gender, ethnicity and so forth that implies--I want to raise the following question: “How can we think the university otherwise?”. This is more than a casual or even “theoretical” (in the more usual sense of the term) query. For all the complaints about the marketization of the higher education system, their inability to articulate an effective “alternative” vision for the


    future of the university appears to have left the majority of academics and institutions with very few options as far as resisting or even redirecting such changes is concerned. It is with ways of answering this question--how is it possible to think the university otherwise, beyond the neoliberal and elite cultural models?--that I have been experimenting for some time now. Weber‟s work on institutions and

    institutionalization has been instrumental for me in this process.

    In what remains his most influential book, Institution and Interpretation,

    Weber shows how institutionalization can be construed rather differently from the way in which it has traditionally been conceived. “The dominant tendency,” he writes, following the work of René Lourau, “has been to reduce the concept to only one of its

    elements: the maintenance of the status quo, and thereby to eliminate the dynamic,

    3transformative aspect.” In other words, institutionalization has been taken for granted, it has been perceived as something that already exists and which just needs to be described, rather than as a process to be understood. Weber, by contrast, puts forward

    a notion of institutionalization “in which instituted organization and instituting

    process are joined in the ambivalent relation of every determinate structure to that which it excludes, and yet which, qua excluded, allows that structure to set itself

    apart” (xv).

    Weber‟s analysis of the process of institutionalization, expounded in a number

    of books and articles, including a recently reprinted and expanded version of

    4Institution and Interpretation, has become absorbed into the mainstream of literary

    and cultural theory (even if the “origins” of this kind of institutional analysis with Weber are, ironically enough, not always explicitly acknowledged or even recognized). Of particular interest for a project involved in “rethinking the university”, however, is the way in which--in a procedure he identifies as being “highly


    characteristic of the organization of knowledge in modern society”, and which “has developed with problematic intensity in what we call the humanities” (137-8)--a

    discipline for Weber institutes itself by distinguishing itself from other disciplines, from what is different to it, what it excludes or expels from its limits. Significantly, this process of demarcation does not entail complete and total rejection; “rather, the

    exclusions persist qua exclusions, and they must be so maintained if they are to

    delimit what falls within the scope of [the discipline‟s] determinations” (145). Unable to forget about what it has expelled and carry on with its assigned tasks, then, the discipline has to continually refer to that which lies outside its limits. This results in what Weber terms the ambivalence of demarcation: “The demarcation is ambivalent because it does not merely demarcate one thing by setting it off from another; it also de-marks, that is, defaces the mark it simultaneously inscribes, by placing it in relation to an indeterminable series of other marks, of which we can never be fully conscious or cognizant” (145).

    At this point it becomes possible to detect a certain instability in the process of institutionalization. For if a discipline delimits its internal coherence as an identifiable, recognizable and autonomous body of thought by means of this exclusionary activity, if it is dependent for its identity on what is different from it, on what it expels outside its borders, then it cannot be self-identical, independent, autonomous or self-

    contained. What is more, this irreducible complication in its identity does not come along after the formation of the discipline in its ideal, self-contained purity and unity. Rather this relation, this contamination by the other, by what is positioned as being outside and heterogeneous to it, is originary: it comes before the establishment of the

    discipline and is in fact what makes it and its founding possible (and simultaneously impossible). The discipline is thus always opened to its others: other academic


    disciplines and other forms of knowledge, both legitimate and illegitimate or not yet legitimate; but also forms of what, for short, might be called “non-knowledge”

    (although this term is not without problems, as we will see later).

    Now, according to Weber, this process of de-markation effectively never ends.

    Nevertheless, if it is to take place at all it must be brought to a halt: “We must both refer the defining terms to other marks that can never be fully defined for us and at the same time--but this precisely fractures the Sameness of that Time--we must „forget‟

    this irreducibly undefinable vestige, this set of exclusions that is neither entirely indeterminate nor fully determinable” (145). In this way, Weber‟s analysis helps us to recognize that any such differentiation or de-markation as goes to institute a discipline--the judgement or decision as to what to include and what to exclude, what should be gathered inside and what expelled outside--is an inherently unstable and irreducibly violent one: the violence inherent in this de-markation, the forceful arrestation of the inherent instability of the disciplines limits, can never be disarmed. The instability can never be removed once and for all, only degrees of control are possible.

    What we can also see from the above is that at the discipline‟s founding origins lies an aporia of authority. For where does the authority to stop this endless

    process of de-markation and establish--or institute--a discipline by setting itself apart from others, from what it is not, come from? A discipline cannot found itself, as that would require it to already possess such authority. This authority must come from

    somewhere else, somewhere outside the discipline and which precedes it. A discipline is thus indebted to some other, external authority for its authority. And yet the search for origins does not end, or begin, there, since even if this external authority were examined it would not enable the discipline to escape the aporia that lies at its heart.


For where would that authorizing authority gain its authority? It would have to come

    from outside that authorizing authority, whose authorizing authority would in turn come from outside its authority, in a process leading to a series of infinite regressions. (As far as the university is concerned--which is where academic disciplines do gain much of their authority--its accreditation, its legitimacy as a seat of learning, its power to award titles of competency, does comes from elsewhere, from outside: this

    authority is granted to the university by the nation state, via accrediting agencies. But from where does the nation state gain its authority?)

    In order to function as a legitimately instituted field of knowledge the discipline must therefore overlook or “forget” its foundational violence, and act instead as if it is beholden to no one but itself for its authority (although it cannot forget its indebtedness entirely, since it is upon the ambivalence of de-markation and the aporia of authority that the discipline is founded). The discipline thus seeks to overcome its unstable and violent nature by performatively producing a set of “founding” principles and procedures for the institution and reproduction of itself and its original guiding idea. These principles and procedures form the basis of the various rules, regulations, laws, norms, protocols and conventions concerning the identity of its founding thinkers, their followers and interpreters, its canon and pedagogical techniques, as well as its various forms and styles of writing, publication, research assessment and so on which go to make up the discipline, defining its sphere of competence and providing the means by which it develops. The problem is that as the discipline does proceed to develop, increasingly little attention is paid to the violent and paradoxical authority on which it is based. Describing some of the distinctive features of the “culture of professionalism” as they appear within the university, Weber puts it in the following terms:


    The university, itself divided into more or less isolated, self-contained

    departments was the embodiment of that kind of limited universality that

    characterized the cognitive model of professionalism. It instituted areas of

    training and research which, once established, could increasingly ignore the

    founding limits and limitations of individual disciplines. Indeed, the very

    notion of academic “seriousness” came increasingly to exclude reflection upon

    the relation of one “field” to another, and concomitantly, reflection upon the

    historical process by which individual disciplines established their boundaries.


    It is not surprising that professional scholars and academics have for the most part followed the above procedures with regards to founding principles and disciplinary borders. After all, as Weber shows, to do otherwise would require them to bring their own legitimacy, based on what he analyzes as the “professionalist

    paradigm of knowledge”, into question. For Weber, “[t]he regulative idea of this paradigm is that of the absolute autonomy of the individual discipline, construed as a

    self-contained body of investigative procedures and of knowledge held to be

    5universally valid within the confines of an unproblematized field” (147). As a

    consequence, little attention is paid to the irreducibly paradoxical and inevitably violent nature of the discipline‟s own foundation. Whenever the issue of its legitimacy is raised, the discipline merely resorts to narrative myth-making of one sort or another, telling the story of its foundation, and thereby generating effects of legitimacy through repetition which can only ultimately be maintained through violence and force.


    From knowledge economy to academic gift economy

    The mythical narrative of the foundations of disciplinary authority is important in the context of this chapter because one of the issues I myself have been experimenting with, in an attempt to articulate an effective “alternative” vision for the future of the university, is precisely the question of how to institute a university or discipline that would take on, rather than merely act out, the effects of the

    ambivalence Weber describes in Institution and Interpretation. Obviously, I have not

    been able to establish my own university--but I have set up some smaller experimental projects; projects which may enable us to make what Bill Readings (himself greatly influenced by Weber‟s work on institutions) referred to as an institutionally pragmatic “tactical use of the space of the university”, and so begin to think the institution differently. One of these is Culture Machine

    (, the electronic journal of cultural studies and cultural theory I co-founded in 1999. But it is a more recent project, which has involved establishing the first (to my knowledge) digital, open access archive for cultural studies and cultural theory: CSeARCH (, that I want

    6to concentrate on in my attempt to “think the university otherwise.”

    I would argue that the digital reproduction, publication and archiving of academic research and scholarship is one area where the paradigmatic shifts that are currently taking place within higher education have been most profoundly experienced. Indeed, the management of knowledge and information is regarded by governments worldwide as increasingly important. Whereas previously economies were understood as being driven by the manufacture of goods and services, nowadays


    it is knowledge and its successful commercial exploitation by business that is held as the key to a society‟s success and future economic prosperity. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel

    prize winner for economics and ex-Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist at the World Bank, describes the situation as follows: “Knowledge and information is being produced today like cars and steel [were] produced a hundred years ago. Those, like Bill Gates, who know how to produce knowledge and information better than others reap the rewards, just as those who knew how to produce cars and steel a hundred

    7years ago became the magnates of that era.” As Stiglitz‟s reference to Bill Gates

    indicates, IT is regarded as playing a vital part in the development of what has come to be known as the “knowledge economy,” helping to transform traditional modes of production, consumption and distribution, and creating in their place new types of firms, products and markets based around the commodification and communication of knowledge and information. Universities and academics are assigned an important role in this new vision of society: both in producing economically “useful” knowledge and research, which can then be commercially exploited through the establishment of links with business and industry; and in educating and training the more flexible, constantly creative, imaginative and dynamic entrepreneurial labor force of “knowledge workers” or “immaterial laborers” that the “knowledge economy” requires.

    One effect of this marketization of the university has been the radical change in the nature of academic publishing. Here, severe cuts in funding brought about as a result of successive governments‟ attempts to compete in the global marketplace by

    reducing the state budget deficit through decreases in public spending, not least on education, have created a situation in which it is increasingly difficult for libraries to be able to afford to stock books, and for students to be able to buy them. To provide


    just one example from the US: whereas previously the University of California would have bought a copy of a particular book for each of its eight campuses (UCLA, Berkeley and so forth), in 2002 the University was reported as making a decision to purchase only one copy to share across all of them. The response of many academic publishers has been to cut back drastically on their lists, and concentrate on producing readers and introductions for the relatively large undergraduate core courses. Consequently, although more books are being published now by international university and commercial presses than ever, many academic titles are merely repeating and repackaging old ideas and material. All of which means that it is getting harder and harder for “junior” members of the profession to publish the kind of research-led texts that are going to enable them to secure their first full-time position, let alone establish a reputation for originality of thought. However, it is not just those in the early stages of their careers who should be concerned. The current state of academic publishing makes it difficult for nearly everyone in academia (apart from a relative few “stars” perhaps) to continue to produce certain kinds of research that

    might otherwise be associated with the university: research that is intellectually ambitious, challenging, even if at times difficult and time-consuming to read, and which is therefore not always particularly accessible or student (or indeed government) friendly. If publishers cannot sell it in sufficient amounts, they are increasingly taking the decision not to publish it at all and to focus on “products” that are more financially profitable instead. As a result, it is not only the careers of a generation of younger scholars that are in danger of being damaged; the whole of academia risks being intellectually impoverished, as research which breaks new ground and develops new insights and understanding is rejected for publication (and hence dissemination among


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