Intellectual Work

The ongoing marketization or corporatization of the university has been criticized in recent years.  Some issues that have received special attention include the influence of corporations on campuses, the expansion of administrative payrolls, the defunding of humanities programs, and the shifting of work onto untenured faculty.  These tangible concerns are easily identified and raised as focal points for public contention. With so many people negatively affected by these trends they naturally become controversial flashpoints. Focusing on these issues can readily rouse oppositional crowds for protests. However, I would like to suggest that these are only superficial effects of more fundamental structural transformations which have been overlooked.  Today it seems necessary to conceive a more comprehensive politics which connects these partial issues together. What follows is an attempt to articulate a deeper political horizon through a discourse on the future of intellectual work.

The larger problem at the university today is that conformity ensures poor intellectual performance. Scholars are unable to work effectively because they are constrained by the narrow conditions in their interpersonal relationships. Their ability to think is reduced by norms which are disciplinary, collegial, fraternal, familial and sexual. They are unable to abandon themselves to their work with the sort of feverish intensity that great scholarship demands. Superior scholarly output requires behavior that would break with the social conditions of their institutional roles. It is this social conditioning that results in the overall ineffectiveness of the humanities, and that intellectual mediocrity results in various other inadequacies.  Governments are forced to defund departments because their work has low market value. This decision reflects the utilitarian basis on which governments everywhere are structured to operate, where there is no rationale for funding inconsequential research and study.

This argument is going to be controversial, and perhaps some will claim they already are working effectively. There is the question of whether greatness is a legitimate standard of judgment, and how it could be conceived.  What I am referring to is work that would effectively respond to the challenges of the world as it is today. It seems that such work is unheard of. Nothing that is being done in the humanities would seem to bear even the slightest consequence for anyone outside of the small fraction of people working directly in those fields. There is much retracing of unfertile ground that was exhausted long ago. There is much extreme specialization not oriented within any broader context. Some academics have moved into the role of entertainers, which is consistent with the order of communicative capitalism. But nowhere is there any compelling perspective on what sort of lives should be lived in the twenty-first century.

Humanities scholars are performing a role that is analogous to what is called customer relations. They are engaged in the emotional labor of maintaining the relational fabric of institutions. In this context, intensive intellectual work is prohibited.  Anyone working at higher capacity will receive complaints that they are not performing their role properly.  They are branded as disruptive, anti-social trouble makers who pose a hazard to their institutions. Students won’t show up for class because the professor gives off strange vibes, and forces them to think about things they would rather not. Superior intellectual work ultimately results in loss of employment, because it is incompatible with the complex emotional labor of maintaining this relational fabric. Setting up alternative online universities will not alter this situation, because the same conditions will prevail unless there is a sustained and concerted effort to move beyond this contradiction.

Authentic intellectual work coincides with the creative process of evolution, whereas financial control aims to prevent that evolution from occurring, and to channel energy instead into prescribed plans of development. This dams-up creative energy leading to dangerous backlogs, whereby intellect becomes a threatening intrusion that management must defend the institutional order against. This is the anti-thought structure that German idealists referred to as a Dunkverbot. In this scenario finance replicates the role of ancient despotism, where fear-affects become the basis for a fabulous authority that prevents creativity. Throughout history, fear-based authority has been founded on the idea of ethnicity, although today this idea is concealed behind the facade of political correctness.  Ethnicity is the relational condition that ultimately constrains intellect within institutional limits. A person’s ethnicity is their symbolic position within their network of social reproduction. Creativity is renounced out of the fear of losing that position, and this way genuine intellect is converted into the yoke of capital as the anxiety-signal of transgression.

This situation is not unique to neoliberalism, as originality is typically constrained in all patriarchal empires. Appreciating the particulars of today’s political conjuncture requires some anthropological analysis of the locus of power in modernity.  Modernity is distinguished from traditional institutions by how it dispenses with the monopoly of despotic power. That traditional monopoly is what anthropologists have conceptualized as the sacred, the form of power that traditional sovereignty reserves to itself. Traditional states are structured to concentrate power in the hands of dominant classes, such as the priests of ancient times, and the sacred is the ethnographic concept of that reserved power. In ancient despotism, the powers of the sacred were concentrated in imperial courts. That was where all the magnitudes reached their limits, which included the limits of consumption, edifice, honor, weaponry, strength, enchantment and fortune.  It was through these magnitudes that the sovereign embodied the attributes of the divine. These magnitudes represented his power to create laws, give orders, make judgments, wage wars, and kill at a whim. The magnitude of his life was perceived to exceed the world of the living, which placed him in the eternal ancestral realm of the dead. This way the creative forces of evolution were invested in the body of the sovereign.

The process of modernization can be understood as the separation of sovereign power into the autonomous value spheres analyzed by Max Weber and Niklas Luhmann. This division of values absolves the traditional concentration of power in the sacred. In this sense, financialization is the exact inverse of modernization, since it reunites the sacred by combining the exceptional forces of creative evolution into the body of a homogenous elite. The confabulation of financial power today can be understood as a restoration of the sacred power of classical despotism. This sovereignty is based on the magnitude of salary, which yields the magnitudes of family, residences, vehicles, sexuality, renown, accolades, vacations, performances and banquets. The criticism of these assemblages should not be conducted in the offhanded manner of naive leftists. These financial confabulations are inferior to proper modern institutions only because they lack functional differentiation, which should be the primary point of contention. The concentrated conflation of values causes the short-circuiting of infantile dysfunction and leads to pathologies such as mania and paranoia.  That is the principle disadvantage of the neoliberal sacred, and not its much-criticized unfairness. Properly modern subjectivity is superior because it is functionally differentiated and not concentrated into dysfunctional fantasies of omnipotence.

Capitalism has perverted the project of modernity by exempting sovereignty from functional differentiation, and thereby restoring the despotic powers of the sacred exception. Modernization is reduced to market liberalization, and that reduction accelerates the evolution of technology. Neoliberalism is partial modernity which augments the powers of the elite by equipping them with new instruments for controlling populations through image reproduction and surveillance. It is necessary suspend the common leftist criticisms of this process in order to appreciate the historical dialectic at work. The present technologies could never have evolved without the restoration of classical sovereignty. The powers of the sacred had to be recomposed in order to form a perspective from which such technology could be operated. The equipment could only come into existence with the presumption of the subject of an elite operator.  It would even seem that no technology whatsoever could evolve amidst the interference of the autonomous value spheres of authentic modernity.  This way it is possible to reevaluate the neoliberal developmental program from the perspective of dialectical history. Although such reevaluation would hinge entirely on subsequent turns of the dialectic.  Neoliberalism is a phase where sovereignty reserves itself as an exception to modernity, and the evaluation of this phase depends on the determination of the point where that reservation is absolved in favor a return to a complete modernity.

A subsequent turn of this dialectical history would have to dissolve the neoliberal sacred through its differentiation back into autonomous value spheres. Those spheres would have to drift apart, so that a diagram of the overall process may be impossible, because it would appear differently depending on which sphere it were considered from. This is the difficulty of describing an absolute differentiation of value spheres.  Breaking the spell of the despotic sacred implies bifurcation in the fabric of perception, and complications in the sense of relation. This would rediscover the “facticity” that post-structuralism began describing in the 1960’s, with its much-discussed experience of “decentering”. The absolving of the neoliberal sacred is a process that corresponds with a de-idealization of the social body.  Where post-structuralism tended to exalt the virtues of austere materialism, it would seem advisable instead to seek forms of de-sanctified ideality that can support alternate symbolic relations.

Initiating a new phase of modernization, raises the question of the identity of the value spheres that would differentiate. In this regard, it would seem that the intellect could define such an autonomous value sphere. This would mean that it would have to separate its own values from those of other spheres.  So there is also the question of how it would relate structurally to other spheres. This future intellect would have to be distinguished from how the intellect is conceived today.  Contemporary figures like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg represent the intellect as a purely technological function. This is the creativity of the developmental program of capital. Professional scholars in the humanities are subordinated into conformity with this program, where they play a complex role in the operation of “soft” imperialism. They conduct social initiations which include the training of communicative faculties, refinements of taste in accordance with prevailing ideals, and the instilling of polite sensitivity to ethical problems facing industrial development.  Their job is to reinvigorate the human faculties which are obliterated in the course of technologically-driven evolution. The liberation of intellect as an autonomous value sphere would have to base itself in that legacy of the academic humanities, while recognizing how that legacy is structurally subordinate within the neoliberal phase of technology-based development.

What we call “the humanities” today is a field which could only exist in subordination to neoliberalism, and so there is no possibility that they could ever be liberated.  It is essential that a future intellect would operate independently from any externally defined ends, and for this reason its liberation would imply an exile of uncertain duration. Thought must be free for its own caprice, without the responsibilities of an institutional office, and not entranced by the hypnotic values of finance. That autonomy may have to involve another level of subordination within a broader process of creative evolution where intellect would be responsive to other autonomous value spheres. The critical question that arises here is whether this broader process of creative evolution would imply another concentration of power into the sacred.  That would depend on the relative autonomy of the separate value spheres, where the sacred would be their gathering into the concept of a supreme power. It would seem that such value spheres could emerge only through the experience of exile, because that is the only condition on which values autonomous from capital could come into existence today.  It would seem any activity that breaks with the values of capital is necessarily an experience of exile.

The intellect is an oral and textual power of expression. It is an orientating force of circumspection which symbolically correlates processes through the articulation of discourse. It could play a role in the conceptualization of other faculties, and the articulation of their original values. But such a vanguard role raises the danger of subordinating those other faculties, and causing the collapse of values back into a concentration of the sacred. This is how the intellect operates in the classical Platonic figure of the philosopher king, and perhaps also in the enlightened monarchs of the early modern period who Hegel adopted as a paradigm of the political. In order to avoid this danger, the intellect is forced into deeper conditions of exile, where it operates only the weakest mediation of a voice calling in the wilderness. This way it limits itself to addressing other unknown faculties with the prospect of forming responsive structures for institutions of the future.

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