On “The Ivory Tower”: Marc Bousquet speaks with Tiziana Terranova

A very interesting conversational interview between Tiziana Terranova and Marc Bousquet is available on the How the University Works website. I only wish to reproduce some notes and memorable quotes from this discussion, since they cover a great deal of important ground on the concept of the university as an “ivory tower”, a term that I have reproduced on this blog, and in fact appears in one of the category headings.

Let me preface their discussion by noting that the “ivory tower” term–often used in accusing sentences that depict universities as elitist–is not one that is owned by any one political ideology. One can find individuals who fit some definition of political radicalism who make this charge, as well as more conservative types. It is convenient to use the “ivory tower” label in any argument in which the university figures. Marc Bousquet also notes this in his comments on the label as it “signifies all the way around the political clock”, a “classic ideologeme – practically un-dislodgeable from any point of view”.

In the introduction to their exchange, originally published in Mute, the “ivory tower” concept is immediately targeted as somewhat of an outdated caricature that is not in line with current political economic realities:

Far removed from the clichéd image of the ‘ivory tower’, today’s universities have been opened to the harsh realities of neoliberal economics: huge volumes of students, extreme levels of performance-geared management, casualisation of employment, and the conversion of students into ‘consumers’. In the name of democratisation and equality, the university has become a cross between a supermarket and a factory whose consumers are also its hyper-exploited labour force.

In line with this thinking, Terranova characterizes the contemporary university as an “open system” that opens out onto the field of casualised labour and “underpaid socialised labour power”. (As someone working in a department where almost half the courses, and perhaps most of the students, are taught by colleagues who also suffered their way to a PhD, only to be rewarded with temporary positions and very meager salaries, I am no stranger to this process–indeed, their union is currently on strike after several years without a contract, in a long-standing conflict with a university run like a private corporation, but almost entirely on public funds.) “Networked intelligence” and “mass intellectuality” is how Terranova also envisions the current situation of knowledge production in which universities find themselves.

Marc Bousquet agrees that the university has never been sheltered from commerce or politics, and thus never really was an “ivory tower”. He notes that in the U.S. at least 60% of high school graduates have some experience with higher education, and thus one might conclude it has increasingly become a mass product, a commodity with which most are familiar consumers.

The question emerges of how the university can be transformed and directed in a process of engaged social transformation, and whose interests are served in a site where production, reproduction, and consumption converge. If tenured faculty might be classically seen as those possessing the privileges associated with the idea of the “ivory tower”, Bousquet observes that their position is somewhat more schizophrenic:

Tenured faculty schizophrenically experience themselves as both labour and management, a contradictory position reflected in US labour law. They also have another schizophrenia of seeking to produce or direct a cultural-material transformation while simultaneously serving capital (as reproductive labour) through the socialisation of a disciplined professional-managerial class.

This observation is not offered as if to somehow whitewash the political role of the tenured, for as Bousquet adds later, speaking of the high rate of unionization among the tenured in the U.S. in terms of “an old-style craft unionism, a labour aristocracy that preserves workplace hierarchy, and has been very much complicit in the perma-temping of the university workforce, preserving their own jobs while selling out the future”.

Both Terranova and Bousquet agree–and here this really resonates once again with the situation I see in my home university–increasing numbers of students are themselves temporary workers, who engage in higher education (which some conservative stalwarts characterize as a “leisure” activity) in the hopes of securing better paying jobs. Even in Quebec, with very low tuition fees compared to the Canadian average, the fact remains there is a cost of living that students have to shoulder, since most are independent and self-sustaining. Given the limited job market, or inadequate qualifications, or poor wages, it’s not surprising to discover that more and more of our students are seeking work in Montreal’s thriving pornographic industry. At this pace, it should not be surprising if students begin to sell their organs to fund their studies. Most end up saddled with debt, a situation with which I am still personally familiar, and credit card companies mount stalls everywhere on campus to seek out students who are desperate from some extra, short term cash. The tuition may be “low”, but we have an “emergency food fund” for students. Matters are quite grim now, and there is no promise that the situation will improve. That so many of these students, most I would say, maintain such a positive spirit, remain energetic and committed to their studies, produce so much high quality work and maintain such an active interest is not just a tribute to them, it defeats another set of myths: that of the “dumbing down” of students who are in university so we can “baby sit” them.

While Terranova and Bousquet both seem to agree, and repeat, that there is opportunity for transformation of the university system as a result of these changes, that massification will help to positively transform the social role of the university and open up new sites of resistance, I remain very skeptical about that. Indeed, some of the reasons for my own reticence here stem from some of the features that Terranova herself notes, especially the applicability of

Louis Althusser’s notion of education as ‘Institutional State Apparatus’….And there is no doubt, as Foucault once put it, that the university still partially ‘stands for the institutional apparatus through which society ensures its uneventful reproduction at the least cost to itself’. Sadie Plant used this quote to contest what she thinks is the ‘Platonic’ bias of many pedagogical approaches to higher education which contribute to making the university what Foucault said it was: the idea that knowledge is something that is ‘recalled’ ready made from an original source and then simply transmitted from mind to mind. This is really the uneventful reproduction of readymade knowledges for the purposes of social reproduction.

I may be mistaken, but I believe there is a theme that runs through their discussion that assumes that temporary teachers, i.e., part-time faculty, the “flex workforce” and “temps” they refer to, will be the source of the transformation of the university. As Bousquet puts it:

A big part of the academic ‘labour of reproduction’ is the production, legitimation, and policing of inequality. I think academic labour, including organised academic labour, needs to submit itself to the tutelage of more radical forms of labour self-organisation. More radical than the trade union movement, as you say. Mass intellectuality implies a revolutionary transformation in the academic consciousness, faculty especially.

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Let me close with little side note that may be of interest to independent scholars, it is interesting to see how the Transformative Studies Institute (home of the journal Theory in Action–see the call for papers below), offers alternative arrangements to facilitate research in a system that caters for those with university affiliations:

If you wish to pursue grants without institutional restraints and politics, you can do so as a TSI research Fellow or Associate. We recognize that the traditional hierarchical and elitist journals, colleges, and foundations often do not take adjuncts, non-tenure track professors, independent scholars, and those employed in the less prestigious academy or other organizations too seriously. TSI however believes that there is a significant contribution to be made by all scholars regardless of one’s employment situation or affiliations. This is why we offer legitimate scholars an opportunity to affiliate themselves with TSI as research Fellows and Associates. Upon acceptance, you will be able to use your affiliation with us as your home institution. We will provide you with support, institutional email, letterhead, and other materials. Furthermore, since we do not require exclusive rights to your intellectual work, you are free to disseminate your research through any outlet. Should you wish to have your work published by the TSI we will do so. The TSI will require the customary 10% of the grant funds (commonly referred to as ‘indirect costs’) for the operation of the institute. However, you retain full autonomy with TSI support.

See http://transformativestudies.org/ for more information.