The limits of the literary

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Defending universities against power elites needs an armoury that’s better stocked.

What do perspectives generated from literature and literary studies bring to bear on the burning matter of university transformation?

The question was provoked by JM Coetzee’s piece in the Mail & Guardian (“Universities head for extinction”, November 1 2013) — an article that is not only the (edited) preface to John Higgins’s new book, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa: Essays and Interviews on Higher Education and the Humanities, but also an appraisal of it.

Ultimately, the positions of both Coetzee and Higgins, who were at one time colleagues in the English department at the University of Cape Town, display the strengths and weaknesses of a literary and literary studies perspective on higher education transformation.

There have been many concerns about what effect transformation of the university landscape, which began in the 1990s, has had and is having on the key activities of universities and their central tasks of teaching and research.

Higgins and Coetzee share a common pessimistic outlook, expressing a fear that the university is going to lose its true identity and become a “university” in name only. That is, an institution that has lost its essential connection to the long-standing practices and traditions through which its dedication to the custody of important knowledge, the fostering of human intellectual development and the preservation of our intellectual integrity has been preserved.

The argument is appealing (it has its “poetry”). However, the danger in mounting this kind of noble and high-minded defence of the university is that its terminology and ways of thinking do not address similar critiques of the current system of educational transformation that emerge from materialist forms of social and economic theory and analysis.

I think that Coetzee is right to be pessimistic regarding the hope that humanities academics will rise up and fight for the preservation of the university, defending it from the forces that threaten to take away its former integrity and turn it into something other than itself, a university in name only.

But the idea of the university here defended seems to be distinctly idealistic, even utopian.

First, in the age of digital information, the idea that the university still maintains its vaunted position as knowledge creator and defender of intellectual values is starting to feel threadbare. Now you can walk around writing and texting your research at the corner coffee shop. You have instant access to all the online libraries on the planet and, given all those free gigabytes of storage, the Library of Congress stored on your iPhone. This includes that part of this library reserved for the storage of everything ever tweeted.

Second, academics do not necessarily — as if by definition — align themselves with high academic values, such as the crucial one of academic freedom. The real interests of academics are often far more basic; indeed, some might suggest that they are often surprisingly shallow.

It is hard to think of a defence of the university’s integrity and academic freedom having real persuasive power unless it is linked to and incorporated in a broader social critique that would insist on a widening of the debate and the struggle. This is because what is happening to the universities is a key part of a strategy or set of strategies whose aim is social power and control, and whose scope is much larger than higher education alone.

This means that the defence of the university cannot be separated from the defence of the media and of the internet, which seems about to become subject to corporate and government control. Even though the university is important and perhaps a special case, talking about the “transformation of universities” as a code phrase for political control helps us to see that what universities are experiencing is a symptom or part of something much wider.

I would characterise this wider context as a global drive whose aim is nothing less than a controlling of citizenries through a process of dumbing down that is expressive of the anxieties of power elites (in both politics and industry) over the political uses that may be made of knowledge.

In Coetzee’s appraisal of Higgins’s book, I sense an interplay between two positions or discourses that are not entirely the same and may not be as consistent or as compatible as he believes to be the case.

Further, these two discourses are the product of what I suspect may be two identities: Coetzee the literary-academic luminary, concerned primarily about “value”, and Coetzee the writer, something of an anti-authoritarian rebel, concerned aboutpower and control, as his writings on censorship attest.

Of all the disciplines in the humanities that might be rallied around the banner of the defence of academic freedom, literary studies would not be the one in the vanguard. It is no longer possible to teach literary texts based on the premise that they interrogate the world — that they are able to cast a different, sometimes radical, interpretative light on our everyday world.

These days the established theories in the study of literature argue that textual meanings are plural, and can shift and change dependent on their contexts and conditions of reception and reproduction, by which we refer to the different uses that readers make of texts.

It follows that the possibility that texts can address, let alone intervene in, the social and political world we inhabit is subject to different kinds of mediation. This puts the interpreter of these texts in a far more powerful discursive position in relation to their meanings and the “knowledge” that they contain.

So I think it is Coetzee the writer we should be listening to here; it is the problem of power that must take precedence, however deeply vested in value we may be. As history has shown, power has always turned against knowledge that lies outside its ambit and is alien to its orthodoxies. And it is hard not to think of university transformation being about power: the power to shape what is taught and thus what is thought.

In his piece, Coetzee characterises academic resistance to the thin edge of the process of transformation as mere “sniping” at the excesses of the new corporate style in which universities are managed.

It is a nice satirical touch, but fails to capture the irony that academics, one might say of all people, are not fully able to comprehend the process that they are part of and subject to, and realise how it fits into a bigger picture.

The corporatisation (or corporate colonisation) of the university was brilliantly analysed by the late Edward Said. In his essay Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Communities, he argued that “humanistic culture in general has acted in tacit compliance with the antidemocratic view that the general public is best left ignorant and questions affecting human existence are best left to ‘experts’”.

Graphic by: JOHN McCANN

COMMENT Damian Garside.

Article Source: Mail & Guardian