[Draft Version of a section intended for publication in Care, Power, Information]
Universities and related institutions dedicated to higher education and/or research have been and continue to be for the (un)foreseeable future subject to a social and political regime bent on demoting, demolishing, and de-intellectualizing them. This is conducted both from the so-called Rights, Lefts, and Neoliberals. This regime has explicit and implicit support both from within these institutions – let’s call these academia – and from populations without an apparent stake in academia (let’s call these, broadly, anti-intellectuals). It’s done both in and under various names, such as the names of progress, freedom, equality, profit, austerity, etc. It’s both conducted in practice as well as given warrant in various ways, too, which, however, both go against many of the pillars of academic discourse itself as well as its particular sub-fields (largely those so-called [mistakenly] ‘soft’, ‘not-STEM nor business’ fields). Reactions by intellectual academics have varied, but more often than not, those already with a membership in academic institutions with a job or with a serious stake in one seem to resort to choose strategies that are of a collaborative nature with the regime of destruction – regardless whether they chose the passive strategy to merely duck and hope not to be noticed if only they keep their mouths shut: a passive-aggressive strategy that means say a few snarky things but overall don’t resist actively (and make it clear you won’t) , or even contribute actively to the destruction (in some schizophrenic cases, academic actors have literally talked an intellectual talk while walking the anti-intellectual walk). However, this destruction of higher education and research is undermining the future of our societies, specifically the future of and in the Global North; and, as a consequence, for some – though not all – dependent institutions, social groups, and countries in the Global South.
Before going deeper into the issue I am trying to elaborate, a few things should be said about the geopolitical aspect of my intervention. While I do understand that some critical voices from or concerned with the Global South, including the decolonial discourse of which I am a supporter, will have good reason to say ‘Why should we care?’ and may even claim that such self-induced demise of the North (by means of causing its own ‘brain-death’, so to speak) might be well deserved, I would say that one could argue that this will not change the global situation and thus the situation for the Global South for the better but may make it worse; it will also not create any kind of justice, since there is a ‘global South’ within the Global North, i.e. people who will suffer from this, who are in many ways except geographically closer to the South than the North, and it is not just in terms of unfairly punishing future generations – without elaborating this point too much, since I already often talk about the different issues of guilt versus responsibility and how to deal with them differently. My own approach here is, precisely, about the need to ‘provincialize’ the Global North (as a geopolitical location) and the West (as an epistemic system), which means to strip away the Norths privilege, entitlement, and the (epistemic-)imperialist claim to universality. Tentatively and somewhat simplifying but for the present purpose adequate, let’s say that doesn’t mean, for example, that knowledge produced by the North in the Western form of knowledge practice cannot be used in a generalized fashion, but that it cannot consider itself as an unprerequisited foundation. Also, and most importantly, I am not defending a mere return to any of the classic University ideas – from Humboldt to the Neoliberal University, or else. Although, I will certainly claim, that we can always learn something from these various ideas and the reasons that were deployed in their inception. But in understanding these reasons, in considering which of their goals and ideas were and still may be worthwhile as partial connections and occasional ideals to try out, I would still say that we must recognize and understand their failures and acts of violence, but recognition also means owning them and the responsibility for them not silencing them (it is here, where I do think many contemporary more aggressive debates on ‘safe spaces’ run into dangers – but this will have to be another discussion for another day). That said, I am, after all, a proponent of new ideas for re-creating the University as a multiversity, but current and recent destruction of these institutions, I am afraid, not only does not help facilitate such a re-creation, it also is counter-productive to it. The destruction of these institutions will result in a remaining type of a University and higher education and research system, which is with regard to the general mind-set that both governs it and that it propagates and instills in its students a universal monoculture.
A dozen or so years ago, I first articulated a basic infrastructural tenet, that I have not abandoned since, namely that any larger territorial state and its society or national or trans-/supranational organized collective has to continually and seriously invest into and own (in terms of guaranteeing freedom from external control) on all its members behalf its infra-structure, and by infrastructure I mean, roughly but in that order of importance (Knowledge enables the others), the following four (partially interlocked) areas:
- Knowledge&Information, including the a) child development, school, higher education, research, science broadly defined (including not only technology/engineering, but also all ‘natural sciences’, social/cultural sciences, arts, and humanities); b) knowledge and cultural(!) labor (structures), and c) information communication channels, which refer to guaranteeing c.1) that there is no political (including no economic) monopoly/hegemony over knowledge and information distribution and c.2) the technological pathways of information communication (phone lines, ‘wave spaces’, etc.).
- Health Care and Aging, to guarantee equal access to all its members to all sectors of the organization/society)
- Traffic, meaning the guarantee that passengers and cargo can be transported quickly, safely, and in ecologically sustainable ways from any point A to any point B.
- Security, by which I mean police, clandestine services, penal and rehabilitation system, forensic psychiatry, and military.
Something like ‘the Economy’ is precisely not part of the infra-structure for a number of reasons. Including among those reasons, which I cannot, of course, go into detail here, are that the economy – precisely because some parts of it consider themselves(!) structurally global, some local, some constantly transition between both – cannot be an infrastructure; that the subsidy structure for businesses established is often hampering, negatively affecting or in some extreme cases close to destroying other elements of the infrastructure (which precisely is conceptually and empirically prohibited for an element of a structure to be part of its infrastructure); most importantly that infra-structure should be able (en-capable, empower) to enable and constrain actors to participate in the economy on fair and equal terms. Here, one could, for example, also use some philosophical proposals about distinctions between different orders/types of goods, and remind people that there are types of (social) goods that exist to enable the possibility and availability of other goods. Additionally, unlike some overzealous, pseudo-scientific Wikipedia-style definitions, we should understand that, ‘No!’, infrastructure is not what is needed for ‘economy to function’, but it is the term for the explicit structures and institutions that sustain an organized collective; an/the ‘Economy’ can be such a collective itself or considered a sub-system of a higher order collective/system, e.g. society, but it is precisely not (in either case) part of the infrastructure. Respectively, I do think investment in the military is important, but I also believe in the idea that a soldier is a ‘citizen in uniform’ (German: “Bürger in Uniform”), and I do believe in a very demanding concept of citizenship as a form of belonging here (although and yet precisely, citizenship is a very particular, Western form of belonging, and far from the only one, but both an interesting one and for the Global North, a constitutive one). These latter aspects (security and restricted citizenship), which I also will not unfold here further, do not sit well with some Left-oriented colleagues and interlocutors of mine. But they should not be mistaken for the naive views many self-styled (structural) conservatives hold. It is precisely through the provinicializing of a concept such as ‘citizenship’ that its (zones of) usefulness as well as areas of in-applicability, as well as its restrictions can be made to show. By restriction, I do mean, precisely, that being born into a territory or to a parents of a specific nationality should not make one automatically a citizen, because with citizen rights come citizen responsibility, which a citizen must be able to fully understand and willingly accept to fulfill. Again, this would need to be further explored, but it should be clear that I view it as a state’s duty to enable all the people, either living on its territory or claiming another form of (justifiable) belonging to it, to become a citizen; and this is, clearly, an aspect covered in the ‘knowledge&information’ infrastructure. Furthermore, in the ‘hierarchy’ of infrastructural premises, it should be said, that different temporal priorities mean that some individual demands render the hierarchy ‘not fully transitive’: It should be clear that, while generally an investment in research should always be considered more important than an investment in the army, in times of a genuine external threat on the horizon, an ‘informed decision’ would lead to a military investment; but clearly, an ‘informed decision’ requires people who are educated and who have access to knowledge to make these kinds of judgements in the first place. And, of course, the elements are interlocked: Security knowledge occupies a place between or in both sectors. But this also already explains why, if we take infrastructure seriously, blindly investing in weapons and surveillance technologies cannot generate more security: The issues and threats security deals with are very complex and so must any solutions be that aim to be more than a temporary, quick fix – here, such as in other areas, I argue that concepts such as ‘sustainability’ are interesting intra-system demands, for which the knowledge sector has the function to elaborate what the system-specific criteria would have to be that define what ‘sustainability’ would mean in each case. This makes, however, also clear that there is no universal idea of ‘Sustainability’, and ‘sustainability’ is dependent on infra-structure. In this respect, I also argue that concern for the ‘environment’, i.e. what environmentalism practically means (theoretically, also, because of what we have learned about the fact that there is no mere nature nor mere culture, but rather naturecultures), is also dependent on the infrastructure. A final matter that should be mentioned, I think, is that the common idea of ‘the Economy’ is also deeply thwarted, for example since the theoretical premises of its science, economics, in many of its contemporary schools ignore at their own peril many historical premises it it was built on (for example, it still upholds some of Jean-Baptiste Say’s ideas but neglects the constraints these rested upon, for example on the very restrictive functions of money); at the same time, there are different players/actors in the Economy who are not comparable nor even commensurable, when the idea of a ‘free market’ is applied – in part, the problem lies in what is understood as ‘free’, because the often found assumption that ‘freedom’ (or ‘autonomy’) could be something that is unconditional is, as I think should be tragically obvious, both conceptually and empirically a contradictio in adjecto. For many so-called multi-national corporations, a genuine free-market would actually be in opposition to their goals and functions. This is also why infra-structures help make ‘free markets’ possible, whereas ‘the Economy’ is not co-extensive with ‘the (idea of) Free Market’; quite on the contrary, there are sectors of ‘the Economy’ which operate either despite of or antagonistically towards the Free Markets, including a disposition against the infrastructures it is pre-requisited by. Therefore, in a ‘weak’ account: If my argument has merit to at least be taken into consideration as a possibility, then we should be careful whenever considering whether any aspect of ‘the Economy’ should be put in charge of infra-structure in any way, and look for justifications in each individual case. In a ‘strong’ account, it is clear that ‘the Economy’ (nor its ‘actors’) should have no place whatsoever in infra-structural considerations of any kind. Here, I would argue that any critical, reflective reader, even if politically disinclined towards me, should be able to at least be willing to allow for the weak account. Not to do so, would mean to take an extremely ideological (and fully destructvie, antagonistic) view. What I will have to say in the further discussion here, should be acceptable to consider from the position of the weak account, although I will freely admit that I, personally, lean more towards the strong account, although I do think that an intermittent position is, at least in select cases, pragmatically possible, were – within limits – convergence/contact zones can be established, between infra-structural and Economic sectors.
So, to situate and make one long story short, knowledge and cultural work and the institutions that enable and carry knowledge work are part of the infrastructure, which enables economic sectors (and not the other way round). Introducing epistemic monocultures, such as the Economic paradigm, into the infrastructure has, thus, a potentially negative (‘weak account’) or self-destructive (‘strong account’) consequence, which may/will subsequently have negative/destructive effects on the higher level of the organized collective.
One of the many problematic consequences of mono-culturalization is an increasing lack of variability: We end up increasingly with the same types of knowledge, and even what could be considered ‘out-of-the-box’-thinking or alternative thinking is already predetermined in terms of how it must be expressed; in other words, it is already pre-established what is allowed to count as an alternative. Everything that is neither official knowledge or officially recognized as alternative knowledge, is not considered knowledge and effectively silenced. This state of affairs is, of course, nothing particularly new. However, even this type of critique has, in the meantime, become very formalized in the way it is allowed to be expressed. Establishing genuinely alternative discourses is extremely problematic. Our problem with constructs such as any so-called sub-altern is that these are often part of a hegemonic discourse themselves. In other words, this picture that there are two connected processes at work – whether in society or in a knowledge economy -, namely inclusion and exclusion, is insufficient. I have argued this point elsewhere in more detail. But the gist of this argument is that in order to be excluded but to have a claim towards inclusion or towards expressing one’s exclusion and the consequences of exclusion as one’s official status hinge on a form of recognition that not all agents (in a collective) or all forms of knowledge (and cultural labor) enjoy. Besides being an included member or included presenting official knowledge, ‘membership or knowledge that is recognized as excluded’ is still formally a kind of knowledge, namely a knowledge that is excluded but may be allowed to make legitimate claims towards inclusion. My – unfortunately empirically quite pressing – example is the question of who has access to social and/or health services, when access is increasingly dependent on (digital/electronic) information and communication technologies (ICTs), with no more non-ICT access paths available? An important part here, as at least a few studies have shown, is that providing access to (and access to competencies to use) ICTs alone does not suffice to guarantee that all excluded people will be able to use these services. But here the problem really begins: We have people included in society, who do not need to use social services for the excluded, we have people who are considered excluded but who have a claim to these social services, and what about people who – for whatever reason – cannot express their claim, i.e. cannot express their state of exclusion, people who are effectively silenced? Secondly, how do we generate and express knowledge about these silent and silenced people, when knowledge is considered knowledge about inclusion, alternative knowledge is considered knowledge about exclusion? What about knowledge about those who do not exist in the exclusion-inclusion system, those who have been silenced by that system? Making these people heard, giving them a voice, helping them become ‘being known’ in the first place is difficult, precisely because they ‘do not exist’ in the permitted way of being excluded. For a researcher working on knowledges about these silenced people, it is very difficult to be heard by other researchers, by policy-makers, or by the public, precisely because it is very hard to proof the existence of a problem (or of people) the expression of cannot be made in system-permissible forms. In various types of conversations and communications, I have made the experience, that there a numerous experts, specifically among social scientists who work on health care, who flat out deny the existence of ‘people who are silent’, i.e. of people who are not counted by the system as excluded. For these social scientists (and many policy-makers), if people are not considered by the system as existing as excluded, they don’t exist and, thus, there cannot be any knowledge about them. Whereas some people, whose job it is to actually collect official data for care systems, admit that there are indeed people who exist in reality but whose data – even data about exclusion – could not be collected. It becomes a further issue that without acknowledging these people as well as knowledge about them, the problem will only proliferate and expand. But the fact is that the people still are materially present in the world and will require care services, some of which are still provided in (material) ‘vital’ zones that serve as boundary/transitional/contact zones (for example emergency rooms), but the services are then sometimes denied, sometimes delivered but not accounted for. This lack of accountability will, eventually, be countered; but the question is, whether by more denial of service to any person without documentation or by effectively allowing for more comprehensive knowledge production, i.e. the permission to acknowledge other(ed) forms of knowledge and, subsequently, changing the system towards becoming more pragmatic (in the actual meaning of pragmatism). Otherwise, exclusion and silencing become, thus, increasingly excessive.
In the system of knowledge and cultural work, we see a similar effect of exclusion and silencing mechanisms, for example through the proliferation of certain, very specific styles of academic habitus and academia specific forms of symbolic/social/cultural capital (see also for more details on some aspects of funding structures: https://alexstingl.wordpress.com/2016/02/26/matthew-showering-the-burning-of-academic-social-capital-and-economies-of-relevance-of-funding-institutions/). While I do not disagree with the proposition that science (and I include the social/cultural sciences, liberal arts, and humanities here into the general concept of ‘science’) should be somewhat useful, I disagree with the complacent and lazy attitude that many people have when it comes to the meaning of ‘usefulness’, as well as the impoverished (and increasingly shallow and techno-reductionistic) understanding of – not only what science is, but more importantly – how science works. There are numerous infamous caricature version about scientists and even more so about philosophers (as the archetypical arts & humanities scholars), which are all versions of the archetypical story of the Thracian servant who was laughing about Thales of Miletus, when he fell into well because he was thinking without paying attention to where he was walking. This is seen as illustration of the impracticality and, thus, uselessness of all things (too) intellectual. Respectively, the ideal of useful science is the technological or engineering ideal. The problems with this set-up, however, are, first and foremost, that in the minds of most people, the engineering ideal of science and intellectual forms of scholarship are considered as antagonists in general, and, particularly, as rivals in a zero-sum game over scarce (and ever scarcer) resources – thus usefulness becomes equated with impact maximization of minimal resources. While this may fit with a ‘neo-darwinistic’ world-view, we do know that ‘evolution’ does not work in purely antagonistic ways, but that many (if not most) processes work agonistically and/or symbiogenetically. It is important that we understand that we need different types of knowledges that challenge each other, but not in antagonistic destructive ways, but in constructive ways. While also a cartoonish caricature, but the simplified idea that science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurs rex and humanities can tell you why that might be a stupid idea is an interesting illustration – even if you’ve never seen the cartoon, of course you can guess, that the scientists get chased and eaten [and yes, of course, there are reasons why we cannot ever clone a dinosaur; although a lot of people think we can, and here, too, it is alternative types of scholarship that could teach us about how communication works between science and its publics]. Science and technology has never worked in straightforward ways. To begin with, there is this general idea of Progress, which is still ‘publically’ quite popular, which many ‘engineering’-types of scientists also still believe in, but which many critical scholars have long viewed as debunked. And yet, we could counter and say, there may be something like progress, but what counts as progress is always dependent on a variety of contexts, relations, criteria, and so on. The same is true for ideas of usefulness or sustainability. And these criteria and knowledge about relations and contexts cannot be developed from within the engineering-ideal itself, because these are the criteria by which the engineering ideal is measured. In a sense, you do not ask a group of professional basket-ball players what the ideal height for a kitchen table is; what you really want is – actually – a kitchen table with an adjustable height. While this is, of course, both simplifying as much as it is hyperbolic, it serves as a provocation worth thinking about.
But in terms of intellectual knowledge production, the problem that knowledge should be more than just useful but to be actually effective it is being required to take into account varying temporalities is something that intellectual scholarly disciplines are actually good for. And, to uncover these variabilities and express their many potential effects and options requires a lot of work by a lot of people over long periods of time, not to mention many conversations between different disciplines and different ways of thinking and doing. So, it’s not about the ‘engineering’-ideal being bad (or good). It’s about the ‘engineering-ideal’ having almost already become the mono-culture of how science is done: Knowledge, to be considered knowledge, must expressed within the terms and/or structures of this (linear teleology of) ideal of engineering, including any criticism and alternative having to be expressed in permissible form – which means critique of any kind must be either construed in engineering-ideal or antagonistic terms and/or structures. But this denies many effective ideas (I have written elsewhere on the difference between mere efficiency, efficacy, and effectivity). Fewer types of knowledge exist as a consequence of the current way that science is done. Think about the data collection problem and whether it is a problem at all. When would the fact that people are not considered (as included or excluded) in the system become a problem for the system (and not only for a few individuals)? It’s a matter of the scale of the problem. But that’s the very point, we don’t know the scale of the problem, because we do not generate knowledge about it. But this is precisely the point: Science should tell us what it is that we don’t know and help us to turn what we don’t know into knowledge. But that’s not how science is done anymore. Science deals more and more with what is already known: This is precisely the gist of the ‘engineering ideal’ and how it has influenced the funding of research and scholarship. If more and more science requires to be funded by external and/or tax-payer funded institutions, and if this kind of funding seeks to allot its funds according to a blurry concept such as impact, then this way of ‘doing science’ cannot deal with the unknown, precisely because ‘science of the unknown’ cannot say in advance what it’s impact will be. That is why anything unknown is an intellectual problem to begin with – the kind of problem that doesn’t get funded in contemporary society. As a consequence, scholars from the humanities and social sciences either corrupt their scholarship to look like it fits with the engineering ideal or they opt to express criticism in the known forms of criticism and propose known alternatives – the recent resurgence of vulgar Marxisms (or should I rather say Marxist vulgarity?) being a good example.
I want to pin these last points down to an analytical point I have been making repeatedly, namely that one effective analytical tool to deploy is the notion of economies of relevance. I posited, a while ago, that these vague concepts, notions of ‘impact’, ‘usefulness’, and so on, derive from what I call economies of relevance. Of course, ‘relevance’ is itself rather broad, but it seems to me, that that is the kind of umbrella concept that very neatly and comprehensively describes whats going on with these other vague concepts, which are often deployed in actual situations (for example, when explaining your ‘impact’ in a research grand proposal). So, the types of questions we need to ask are, for example ‘What does it take to seem relevant today?’ There are interesting examples, for example, why do politicians both talk so much about ‘the Economy’ and chum up with business-folks, and appear to look themselves more and more like either MBA-trained managers or corporate lawyers, rather than people who tackle by means of policy-making the social problems of the communities and societies they have been given responsibility for? That is, of course, because one of the main metaphorical vectors has become the economic angle, or maybe a kind of ‘business accountant’-speak or ‘business imaginary’. Just think about how austerity politics is presented as ‘household discipline’ on the one hand, while one of the severest moves – but no way the first, nor the most historically meaningful one – towards austerity politics was made following a financial crises but was made hand-in-hand with a politicians saving financial institutes and, subsequently, watering down legal consequences (both punitive ones as well as future-oriented regulative ones). Politicians who do not seem ‘business-talk’-savvy are hardly taken seriously by both their constituents and by ‘business and Economy’ representatives. With voters, the problem is doubly complicated, since voters expect their preferred politicians to be able to both be business-savvy in order to ‘not waste tax-payer money’, i.e. by keeping household discipline like a good common person or ‘housewife’ would (there is an interesting intervention afforded here for critical feminist philosophy to make, of course, which I cannot go into for lack of space but which there are better feminist theorists better suited than I, who is a different kind of theorist), in a sense also ‘investing smartly’, and do as much ‘useful stuff’ with as little of their (tax-payer) money as possible, while at the same time being able to both sweet-talk and tough-talk to business leaders on an eye-to-eye level. So, in order to ‘appear relevant’, political workers (be they politicians or other kinds of political workers) must seem to be able to ‘talk business’. But the more that politicians buy into this relevance economy, the more we find a mono-culture (of Economy-oriented minds) take control in terms of how problems, their origins, and their solutions can be imagined. And the household-metaphor is one prime example within this mono-culture: Most people seem to think of ‘the state’ or a national government in terms of a household; this or similar metaphors are often dragged up, especially during campaign time: It is noteworthy that in some political geographies, such as the US, there is almost always ‘campaign time’, there seems to be no more space for actually acting politically, and the US, and increasingly the UK (and interestingly, for example, also Switzerland is going in that direction) as a consequence have effectively replaced almost all political action with politics – and the equally silly but almost cute thing is that any one who doesn’t do politics or acknowledges that’s how things are actually done, is considered to be very naive. In short, the only realpolitik in town is politics (in the negative definition of that term): This is ‘cute’ – from a sarcastic stance, for, of course, it is ‘ugly’ because of its dire consequences for the lives of many actual people – in so far as this realpolitik only functions because so many believe in it, while any real problems remain unsolved and a status quo of the political structures, including insufficient infrastructure, are preserved – elsewhere, I have carved out a distinction between structural conservatives (to which both the Left and the conservative Right, regardless what name they give themselves Democrats, Social Democrat, Libertarians, Republicans, Labour, Tories, Tea Party, Christian Democrats, etc., belong) and genuinely value conservatives (one can find a small number of individuals who can be considered value conservatives: For example, I would count former German minister of consumer affairs Renate Künast, President of the German Parliament Norbert Lammert, Erhard Eppler, or American politicians such as Elizabeth Warren or Bob Dole among them). Knowledge and cultural work are (and this is a point I will have to flesh out further in the future) important and necessarily receive recognition (and, thus, fair resources and adequate infrastructural power) in a value conservative political framework, but not in a (respectively, in today’s) structural conservative politics framework. This has many reasons, but one is that for politics (and the Economy) to sustain on a larger scale its hegemonic status, knowledge and cultural labor must be over-powered by politics and the Economy, for otherwise it would be revealed how they are only ‘efficient’ in view of their internal problem constructions, but ineffective in helping people overcome or deal with their actual (political, social, etc.) problems. Politics and the Economy is about managing problems, the Political is about overcoming problems, while knowledge and cultural workers stand in a mutually constitutive and interdependent relation to the Political. By forcing politics (and its inherent rhetoric, poetics, and economies of relevance) onto knowledge and cultural labor, this work becomes ineffective and,subsequently, infra-structure suffers. There are various aspects of this development that inhere in very long-running structural and metaphorical mechanisms that derive from our thinking in terms of household-as-oikos to relate back to the Global North’s ancient Greek intellectual-political origins, which kind of shaped the operating software that our (Western/Northern) societies run on [Note regarding this as a blog-post: this forthcoming book of mine Care Power Information, is an attempt to discuss at least some of the origins, developments, and consequences of oikos (the ancient Greek concept for the concept ‘household’)].
If the economy of relevance had a currency, I think it would be ‘attention’. Not for nothing is one of the main areas of medicalization, including the medicalization of childhood, constructed around the idea of attention deficit (aka ADHD). Attention medications are even deployed by the demand of parents, wanting to help their children be successful (and ‘not losers’) in life, in cases where there is no ADHD clinically indicated [‘Good intentions …., and so on, no?’]. Not for nothing do we say ‘Pay attention!’ While this ‘command’ may seem like a mere accident of language, I do not necessarily think so, because there are some social and science historical aspects to the rise of ‘attention’ as a concept of this social and clinical magnitude (which I explore[d] elsewhere), and there is this general treatment of attention in the education, cultural, and labor structures we build, that treat it like a scarce resource. Indeed, I think what we see, instead, is that ‘attention’ is constructed like a kind of scarce currency – it is, in a way, the actual gold of the gold standard for and within the relevance economy. An attention economy seems to be the main type of mechanism of the economies of relevance (I will leave out here the certainly important discussion, in how far this, i.e. the notion of economy with regard to relevance and/or attention should be conceptualized in term of political economy). But doing knowledge and cultural work, I think I have come to understand something crucial here: We should be – careful: irony! – ‘paying more attention’ to the ecologies of attention not the attention economy; who knows, perhaps the Economy is really only the Attention Economy (General). I am not the first, of course, to speak of ‘attention ecology’, but my point is actually about different, diverse, and variable attention ecologies existing simultaneously, while there is only one ‘type’ being constantly co-produced and given hegemony by the attention economy. This is something of a shift of focus from attention economy to attention ecologies that I have been advocating for a while now, most recently and prominently in a keynote lecture at the College of Leuphana University Lüneburg in October 2015. I will, however, have to trouble and complicate this distinction somewhat, because we really must understand that we inhabit always different attention ecologies simultaneously, and these ecologies and economies of attention shape each other mutually (largely through temporalizations and spatializations through practices; practices being the key issue in my theoretical and methodological works, which is why I am not going into to much deeper detail here, since this is not the place for a long theoretical exposition). Think of it this this way: The world around us, with all its lovely complexities, affords us a lot of opportunities that we could direct our attention to: a lot of things to perceive, manipulate, interact with, and so on. There may be an interesting plant, or a plant that needs watering, there might be a trail of ants, there is a car driving, which you hear or see, a cell-phone is ringing, a screen shows an advertisement, etc. But most of us are not really universally receptive to everything that is afforded to us in these manners simultaneously (or even ever at different points in time). Some people may never be able to register the ants marching and always only attend to moving macro-objects that might be dangerous to them and also and primarily the ‘objects of technological civilization’, whereas other people might be constantly distracted by all the little creepy critters and greens around them. Of course, this description is a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea that different people are geared towards existing in different attention ecologies which exist around them. Furthermore, in societies and collectives, we do assign particular values to certain aspects in our ecologies, which are co-related with certain functions and certain practices, etc. (again, let’s not do too much theory here). The point is that, as we continue to fill our world with screen-based technologies and interfaces, more and more people will attend more and more to screen-based affordances and practices and other attention ecological affordances will be part of what they would even be able to understand as a discernible part of their ecology affording perception or interactions with. So, the more certain actors in a society understand, create, and manipulate social practices to function according to the idea of an attention economy, the more the attention ecologies people can live in are transformed by this economy. So, while companies struggle for your attention with advertisements for you to buy their products, considering, qua economic paradigm, that your attention is a scarce resource, they will not only compete over existing advertisement spaces but also also attempt to create or conquer new advertisement spaces. Think about a very simple example: 30 or 40 years ago, a restaurant customer would have looked at a menu and among the various drinks have looked for drink groups and ordered the drink group s/he liked, nowadays instead of drink group one regularly reads one brand name after the other, often presented by the brand logo which is also often replicated in various other places in the restaurant (napkins, shades, etc.). More recently, one can see this gone further at many airports, where restaurants have tablets on the tables which- besides menu information – run advertisements. Now ask yourself, have you ever observed insects that live in an airport? Or considered the – sometimes actually visible – fungi that live in the various cracks and nudges of the table, floor, and wall of that airport? And, be honest with yourself, if you were sitting in an airport restaurant, what would you really think of a person who would notice these things and point them out to you? Now, consider your responses to these questions and why you think these are your responses, and think further, what do you think would the responses of the next generation of people be and the generation after that, given the way the ‘world continually transforms our immediate environments’? The point I am trying to make lies, here, specifically in terms of doing critical thinking (and hasn’t critical thinking become a wonderful slogan for education reforms of late??? ‘We need to teach people critical thinking skills, yeah!’): We need to shift our view from attention economy – from thinking about attention as a scarce resource – to the attention ecologies in order to understand (before we can think about economies at all_ what is afforded to draw our attention and why and how these ecologies transform in the ways they do. Again, this matter could and should be further complicated on various theoretical and methodological levels (for example through French philosopher Gilbert Simondon’s ideas about individuation and milieu, to name only one). But for the purpose of illustrating the most critical issue with the specific way ‘attention’ works when it is constructed as the currency of relevance, this should suffice for now. What should also be clear is that, to a large degree, we cannot afford to be oblivious to what’s going on around us. The simplest example is how people have accidents because they ‘don’t pay attention’ to the street but to their smart phone. Think about how we attempt to solve these problems: We urge people to ‘pay attention’, yes, but in terms of technology, we look for the driverless car. However, while I think in the distant future, driverless car will be a fabulous thing, this is not the solution to the problem. Instead of ‘paying attention to’ we should ‘be mindful of’ attention ecologies. An important aspect here is, too, that if we want to build a driverless car, we need to make these cars function in ways that don’t just pay attention to the street, but that are ‘mindful of’ far more than the elements we think that attention should be paid to. That’s what creating artificial intelligences that can run complex aspects and, thus, are becoming part of the collective organizations we call societies means – don’t kid yourself: a driverless car is an entity exerting social force and causes social transformation, the same way that the introduction of trains did. Carving these complexities out and thinking them through, that’s a lot of knowledge and cultural work that has to be done. But instead of recognizing the many areas where (massive) knowledge and cultural work has, is, and will have to be conducted, the current mood is to diminish the relative contribution of these forms of labor, to diminish their recognition, and to diminish their remuneration (including, above all, the financial remuneration). While there is, actually, an increasing need for knowledge (and cultural) work, the official demand for knowledge work is strictly regulated and diminished in terms of the economy of relevance, leading to a continuous precarization of knowledge workers.
The ‘impact’ of the economy of relevance, remaking for example academia into one of the economies of relevance, on knowledge work can be grasped in many phenomena and illustrated in many examples and also analogies. But whether expressed in fashionable vague terms of ‘being useful’, ‘impact’, ‘efficient’, ‘sustainable’ and so on, knowledge work is generally both criticized (in the negative) and (suspiciously and skeptically) commented on, which always runs back to the same kind of struggle, the struggle for appearing relevant. Something appears more relevant if, for example, it has a ‘practical application’, or an ‘immediate effect’, or ‘creates a patent’, or helps ‘maximize outcome/profit’, or if it is ‘done by a member of a BIG NAME University’, etc. etc. Most people will, I guess, nod knowingly at this list and be able to add to it. Although, it is also clear that while most readers will nod knowingly and agree that there can certainly merits to be had by projects that don’t fulfill this list, many readers when hearing about a project idea will also immediately evaluate in their heads if they think the project is worth doing – yes, we all do that, myself included. And we always look for criteria to make that evaluation. So, what do we do other then ask: But is it relevant (and, if, then to whom)? All knowledge and cultural work lives under that regime of having to justify their existence in terms of relevance. Think about cultural work: How do we determine funding for it? It has to be successful, and to be successful – measured in viewers/readers/profits – it has to be entertaining. Think about it: Reputedly, £31.6 million (45.2 in US dollars) in British tax payer money (in the form of tax reliefs) were contributed to the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which cost £204 million to make and made about £1.4 billion (2 billion US dollars) in sales by March 2016. Did a mega-corporation like Disney, which stood to make a huge profit, need tax payer money? The argument is often made that these subsidies help the local economy and creative industries. But is that so? The problem is that it is indeed very hard to calculate these matters reliably. But it goes without saying that with £31 million, a number of smaller, local cultural projects (and subsequent jobs) could have been financed as well, which, too would have had net effects in the local economy – perhaps even more sustainable ones. So, why, overall, does a mega-corporation receive this funding and why are the reasons brought up in favor being heard and do trump the discussion while reasons for an opposing view are hardly ever being even discussed? Because of ‘relevance’. Again: The same money could be used to to finance, say, 31 smaller projects and these could benefit the local economy in no less positive ways than the mega-corp would, but it still would not be seen as equally relevant. To some degree, this has been discussed under the terms of the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage (those that already have, will be given more, i.e. the rich get richer and so on). The economies of relevance, however, have complicated and worsened the problem, because we find several additional developments that come with it. To begin with, well, there is the issue of lobbying. Relevance work on a grander scale often includes lobbying structures. They also include a buying up of channels and actors that could facilitate are more equal playing field: We see this, in analogy, in the US-American patent/litigation economy or in the ‘stacking the bench’ with talented players that ‘rich soccer’ clubs have been accused of conducting, i.e. in buying far more talented players than they can use, just to make sure no one other club can become a rival. But the most important issue, I think, is that we must consider that relevance often works in a requirement of occupying the attention ecology. We can see this mechanism in the question of ‘why advertise at all’. Advertisement of products used to be thought of in common terms as either informative or manipulative: Advertisement in this simple version was considered as alerting customers to a new or specially-priced product or a new company; alternatively, a (now lay-)psychological view would argue that ads were a clever way of manipulating customers to buy a specific product or prefer one company’s product over the other. And while these accounts are not entirely wrong (especially in terms of pharmaceutical ads in the US), they have been insufficient explanations in the early age of advertisement already and they are almost misleading today. Advertisement does many things, but most importantly, I claim advertising is about ‘being relevant’ at all. Customers have for the longest time been overflowed with ads, many of them constructed cleverly and focused on their target group, and so on. But they are almost all done too well. There is no reason why a customer should prefer car A over car B, or car C, or car (and I am not even entering the [in]transitivity problem of preferential orders here), based on advertisements alone – unless, say the ad for car D, was really shitty or created a shitstorm because of some political issue. But here is the rub: What about car 5. Now you will say, “5? What?” Exactly. There is an economy of what a car company as a product itself needs to be in order to be considered relevant at all; it needs to be in line with certain norms and it needs to be able to receive attention. If a potential buyer has not seen an ad for car 5, s/he will not be very likely to buy it, even if the salesman shows it to him/her. The customer may be looking for a family car, and A,B,C, D, and 5 are – as products – roughly equal, 5 may even be slightly better. The customer will not be too likely consider car 5. Obviously, it still happens sometimes that car 5 will be bought, but the car 5 company will still not rise to be a major player, because it’s not relevant. Car manufacturer A knows that advertisement is not usually making it more likely that their car will be preferred over B,C, or D, but they have a sense for the fact that we have built ourselves an economy of relevance where they must advertise or, like car company 5, they will become non-relevant. Advertisement is more and more conducted to maintain relevance (to remain part of, or even dominate, a market) and less and less to sell more of a product. Many chains (supermarket, restaurants) have opened branches in so many places that some analysts have asked whether some of the branches can even be profitable. But here, too, the decision is made in terms of relevance (which relates, of course, to the whole construction of the stock-market/shareholder idea). A chain has to have a certain presence in order to be considered relevant; sometimes, the idea is to be present in a place to prevent a competitor from being able receive attention. This is not to say that this can’t, sometimes, also backfire. There is such a thing as over-saturation. Even if customers often do not have as much choice in a market as they think (many mega-corps own a lot of smaller companies selling similar products, or control various productions pathways, and so on), it is important that the illusion of choice is maintained. It is the most intriguing phenomenon that some customers are fully aware that the degree of choice in a market is an illusion, but they still act as though there were a high degree of choice. But to reiterate and summarize: It’s all about appearing relevant.
Now, I went through all this explanation, because in contemporary society, we have reconstructed (and devalued) knowledge work in terms of the same economy of relevance. In academia, the world of higher education and research, that’s become all it’s about. Ask in US or British academia (and to a large degree most continental European academia), why a person was hired for a job, and the answer you often get is ‘3P’, which stands for politics in the hiring department/school, pedigree (prestige of their degree’s institution), and publications (in prestigious [e.g. according to impact factor] journals). [I would, however, propose that there can still be, for a few courageous people, an alternative long-term “1P”-strategy, namely to become prolific, i.e. building a unique profile over time by showing that one can make a difference for people – by being a good teacher, for example.] There are many career-building steps, which are built around relevance. The most relevant factor has become third-party funding. There are many relevance markers, career-pathways, and so on, that are built along this academic economy of relevance. For example, the whole issue of status maintenance of Ivy League universities is an interesting example. But to be frank, most Ivy League scholars don’t do better research (let alone good teaching), they only appear more relevant while they really are producing just as much average and mediocre research as everybody else does – and one could actually argue that these Ivy League universities, precisely, must produce mediocrity itself, i.e. that the label of ‘excellence’ which is thrown about so much is merely another mechanism in terms of relevance, and that in truth ‘excellence = mediocrity’. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to get funding for research that is truly inventive and new, because the results of this research are always uncertain by definition. Of course, an Ivy League University still is a place where some of that unique research still happens, because they do offer better equipment than less endowed colleges. But my concern is that these inventive results happen more despite of and not because of the ‘excellence’ status of these institutions. Furthermore, we look to so-called excellent universities to define what excellence is, and measure all universities by these standards of excellence, and the people we vote for (or hire) who have to decide on funding for research and education often come from universities who bought in these ideals of excellence: Tautology and reification, anyone? Who decides, for example, how and by what criteria research grants should evaluated? Research grants are written in a particular writing style and structure, which are non-surprisingly geared towards making the research seem relevant. But this style was developed and is taught by a certain class of people, and it is difficult to learn from people not privy to this type of implicit knowledge. As one person, who used to work for a major funding organization once explained it to me, unlike smaller or less prestigious colleges, at Ivy League Universities students are included in the learning about the style of grant writing by professors who are already part of this grant writing culture and its implicit knowledge stock – meaning they do have a lot of implicit knowledge about the economy of grant writing, an economy that works, largely, by writing a proposal that has as few points it could be negatively criticized for as possible, since peer reviewers are looking for reasons to reject a proposal (as quickly as possible) not to the actual contribution of a project. Even a category such as ‘merit’ itself works through an economy of relevance, i.e. it has to be written in a certain way, rather than actually describing a genuine merit. The problem isn’t that this is something that’s not known. Everyone in academia knows it and sometimes, in certain dark corners, it is even sometimes talked about. But to talk about this in the open and to actually propose how to change it, and say why it really needs to change, is something most people shy away from, because they are afraid nobody will pay attention to them afterward anymore (While I don’t this would count as whistle-blowing, there is the ‘whistleblower’s fate’ of becoming paraih and outcast to consider in this case, too). Giving voice to an open secret one runs the risk of losing relevance, not because one can actually lose relevance, but because the question becomes why a person gives voice to this problem. If a person does that, the question becomes whether they are actually an irrelevant person to begin with. Who but car 5 would complain about how car company A, B, have fixed the market, and car company C and D play along? Only ‘a loser’ will complain about that and reveal how the game is rigged, yes? So, a main reason why in academia we don’t change the way grant writing, job applications, tenure promotion, publication review, peer review, and so on are working and work very badly and unfairly – why we don’t even really talk about the reasons why they work the way they do – is that while we can agree on a collective level (e.g. the Left, adjunct unions) that there are these issues, on the other side, as a collectivity of many individuals, most of these individuals fear that if a dissenting voice was attributed to them individually, they would have no longer a chance of being identified as someone with relevance. Dissent, in a non-permitted form, renders one ‘future silent’, i.e. irrelevant or ‘othered into silence’.
We find the need to ‘stay relevant’ in the world of advertisement and of branching corporations hand-in-hand with an inflation of sites of for advertising and branching, that, paradoxically, intensifies this process of a seemingly reducing of the number opportunities – something we find, similarly, in academia. While it is clear by now that a product is placed, often enough, not to sell more of it, but to maintain one’s position in the market, we also seem to observe markets are growing, that places for opening a business or placing a product seem to grow in number, and yet, these places more often than not seem to be taken up by big brands rather than small businesses or ‘craft/artisan’ products. In academia, we find similar processes happening. While the number of journals seems to constantly grow, acceptance rates (in peer review) seem to be ridiculously small – similarly, whenever research grant funding agencies proclaim a rise in budget, their acceptance rates also seem to decrease. Not to mention that those entries or projects accepted also deserve to critiqued in terms of why certain institutional types or researcher profiles seem to have an edge, why peer review is conducted in a certain way even if it has been shown that it must be reformed, and even though proposals how to do so have been made. It is, clearly, tough to disentangle these processes and to conduct good and critical research on these matters about academia from within academia itself for a number of reasons (and, no, ‘privatizing’ it is not the solution, because the structure behind ‘privatizing’ is at the heart of the problem). But the complexities between publications, third party funding through grants, prestigious (well-funded) institutions, and other biases with regard to peer-review and hiring in academia has been discussed across many discussions forums. Again, what I am concerned with is that the conjunction of what seems like an inflation of opportunities on the one side, and a decrease of non-precarious jobs in academia on the other, seem both to effect an overall decrease in real opportunities to participate in academia in both meaningful and livelihood sustaining ways, and that the mechanism through which all of this works in this way can be reconstructed in terms of what I call economy of relevance. In various ways, relevance is the opposite of or anti-thesis to knowledge and cultural work. I do not mean to say that knowledge/cultural work are not ever relevant, but the precise point is that we do not know when and if it will be relevant, because we can never really know what will become needed as relevant in the future. Some of future relevance we can try to pre-determine, but that is, in a sense, only accomplished by rigging the game. And it never works as well as people think it will, because many parties try to rig the game to their advantage, once again causing additional uncertainty, contingency, and chaos. This is, however, also a basic argument, why we need redundancies in certain systems. Why do we need redundancy with health care (and other) insurance, with police, or many government offices? It is, of course, easy to see only the immediate costs, and, perhaps, also include the ‘probability’ of certain events happening. However, when these events happen and the service is required but not sufficiently available, because redundancies were eliminated, the consequences can be extreme. Let’s try a little thought-experiment: If the argument to reduce the number of full-time firefighters is that over the year there are only x-amount of fires is accepted in a county, what are possible consequences – besides more unemployed people. Let’s say that, indeed, a number of firefighters are let go, some older ones get an early retirement, some recent hires are laid off, and future hires are for part-timers with only short-term renewable contracts. For the firefighters of this county as an organization this will equal – first of all – a destruction of implicit knowledge (knowledge you only learn by working together with the others for a while) by elimination of some of the carriers of this knowledge, and constrain the further communication as well as creation of implicit knowledge, because short-term contract hires often do not have the opportunity to create, learn, and then teach others any implicit knowledge – this is what happens, by the way, in many organizations today, including higher education and research: Precarization is, among other things, the destruction of implicit/tacit knowledge. But for organizations to function not only efficiently but also effectively, implicit/tacit knowledge is crucial. Indeed, efficiency (for example cost-efficiency) can be increased to a point, while effectivity reaches zero levels. The pharmaceutical business is a good example: While it has become extremely efficient as a market and companies profit margins can be substantially exploited, the effectivity of medication, research, coverage, and so on, appears to have decreased dramatically (and only some of the reasons why are understood, while others are under-researched, such as, e.g., the increase in and diversification of placebo-effects). Now, our fighter-fighters are in a process of being reduced dramatically. How do you retain your job or get one the few new (part-time) ones, if these are at all attractive? We can be certain that some way, it’s gonna be about relevance in one way or the other. But, again what is relevant? What interests me more in the thought-experiment here, now, is that the elimination of redundancies erupts when the events why redundancies were built into the system in the first place actually occur. Yes, that’s the very point, redundancies are part of systems for a reason, and while it may be true that some redundancies may emerge for political reasons and some may exist even though they will not be required, most redundancies do not fall under that category – regardless what some austerity-fanatics who promise to lower taxes and bemoan the squandering of taxpayer money claim. While your now super-efficient fire department may be well-staffed to handle a house on fire, what happens if two or three are on fire at the same time? Who you gonna call? And has anyone thought about the fact that there might be an increasing number of bush and forest fires thanks to climate change? And so on and so on. The interplay between contingencies and redundancies is important to understand, but it cannot be understood in terms of relevance because if something is relevant it precisely not thought of as contingent. But deal with contingencies we must – in real life, that is. And one of the ways to enable us to deal with contingencies individually, as communities, as organizations, as societies, is knowledge and cultural labor. Why? Because the interplay between contingency and redundancy is an infrastructural problem.
Another knowledge work area where ‘relevance’ has taken over to dramatic effect is the teaching aspect in higher education. When I am teaching in Germany, one the most asked questions is ‘Ist das relevant für die Prüfung?’ i.e. ‘Is this relevant for the exam?’. There is a noun for this: Prüfungsrelevanz – ‘Exam-relevance’. We have even come to the point that we must mark what is relevant in advance and cannot ask anything but what the students know to be relevant. Administrations even ask us to define more and more ‘relevancies’ in advance, such as in terms of ‘teaching goals’ in a syllabus. We have created a whole market for ‘accrediting’ universities around such practices. Anyone who defies the ‘ways and rhetorics this is done’ is not fit to work in higher education today. It has been remarked by many authors, myself included, that these practices confuse training (for a predefined goal with a predefined temporality) with education (which enables people, among other things, to identify goals, create goals, set goals, or to acquire means to reach goals they cannot anticipate yet). Turning higher education into a place where people train practices and routines for the present job-market is, yes, relevant – but this relevance itself is fleeting, the present job-market, the skills and routines it requires are temporary, and having a job, while certainly an important part of social life, is not the only and, perhaps, not even the most important part of social life or function in society. My argument is, however, that while the infrastructural aspects are more important, being equipped by (education) to help along with these infrastructural aspects will also enable you to acquire skills a future job-market may require. Being trained for the present job-market will neither equip you to help along the infra-structure to function nor to be able to acquire future job skills. The Liberal Arts and Humanities, as well as the core social sciences (such as sociology) in particular are about that infrastructure. The attempts to make them more ‘marketable’, ‘relevant’, ‘quantifiable’, etc. only negate their true infrastructural power, which is, however, increasingly needed. This is, I think the alternative we must choose from: Exam-relevance or Liberal Arts. In choosing Liberal Arts and Humanities, students acquire meaningfulness, mindfulness (in the sense of not only working by rote and routine, i.e. not working ‘mindlessly’, which is not effective and leads to fatal errors), implicit knowledge, and skills for creating, maintaining, evaluating, and transferring implicit knowledge. We must create Liberal Arts without and against ‘economies of relevance’.
I will only hint at this here, it will be part the book Care Power Information and much of my future work. But precarity, precariousness, and the precariate is a major concern for me, precisely because we are witnessing what I consider the Precarization of Everything. I am concerned with the emergence of what I consider a Green Precarity/Precariate/Precariousness becoming the main status of all agents in the emerging Post-Risk Society. The monocultural programmatic that guides the idea of the Bioeconomy is main driver behind this development. The imbrications of biotechnologies and various dimensions and structures of societies need to be understood in meaningful ways, and that refers precisely to concepts such as sustainability and responsibility, which are often deployed as absolute but empty and impotent (meaningless) metaphors. The point is not to say: But who’d argue against sustainable production? The point is to ask: What is sustainable, for whom and why, in what time frame, and so on? The use of phrases like ‘sustainability’ is a way to make something seem ‘relevant’ but it doesn’t make it particularly meaningful. Instead, we must consider ideas such as generative justice and generative values, which are ideas developed and discussed ‘as we speak’, and these are conversations I encourage you to join in to and become active for. For scholars to intervene on this basis in public debates, means considering those contemporary news cycles that are mediated through so-called social media, there are two lines of ‘reporting’ in which I observe the following two generalized trends which I have coined ‘the precarization of everything’ and ‘your doing your brain all wrong’: Liberal Arts, therefore, means studying political cognitive embodied cultures, it means to understand the political and the biological, since the infrastructure of organization (political) is not without its messy, living bodily organisms (biological).
This begs the question, of course, what is the political project of Liberal Arts and Humanities? Some Liberal Arts programs and even the university that host them and often host them for that particular reason (more and more in an act of ‘corporate social responsibility’), enthusiastically, optimistically, and even with a hint of utopianism – and all that is in and of itself not the result of a bad attitude or wrongful intentions – sketch their approach int the formation of citizenship ideas, a citizen’s discourse, and participation in or proliferation of civil society. But there is also a problem, because citizenship is historically a Western and in some ways deeply colonial political mode of belonging, which has undergone some transformation but at its root contains many of presuppositions that are problematic in terms of enabling political participation, of allowing for alternative modes of political action and different ways of belonging. Being a citizen is not the same as participating politically, but often one’s political agency are taken seriously only if one is a citizen or is considered at least eligible for citizenship. But that hinges on a paradox: On the one hand, the ideas that constitute what makes one a citizen are very narrow ideas, but on the other hand, there is also room for arbitrariness, which allows for mechanisms of exclusion that are more a form of – once national, once social psychological – protectionism: As some recent research has shown, for both the US as well as Europe, immigrants and foreigners are the main topic that concerns those social groups responsible for the rise of extremist parties and politicians and for the attacks on welfare state principles and institutions, as well as the rampant anti-intellectualism. It becomes quite dangerous, when even those people who qualify themselves as ‘tolerant’ people (and there’d be a lot to say about the problems with ‘toleration’) say things, such as ‘But one has to, at least, understand that these people have fears…’. The problem is not the fears, but, again the way that these ‘fears’ are about ‘relevance’, namely the relevance of eligibility for the type of belonging that is citizenship. Furthermore, that citizenship has become even narrower and more arbitrary at the same time in the past decades has to do with its re-casting itself as a mode of belonging which some have called neoliberal citizenship, characterized by such as nouns as ‘authenticity’, ‘self’, ‘structured competition’, and so on. But specifically competition means here a competition for relevance and efficiency, on a person-level defined via wealth and/or job, i.e. the model of the rentier on the one hand or, on the other, the pro-/con-sumer-hybrid. But this kind of citizenship is a a mode of belonging without civics (civics is a process, not a defined set of traits for civility and/or citizenship) and solidarity (which I understand in terms of integrative practices of being together with Others). What Liberal Arts, as their political project, therefore must do and ask is ‘What other forms of belonging, for example in ‘the political’ (postfoundational) sense, i.e. in an infrastructural relation, are there, could be there, and how can people become sensitive to them? Liberal arts and humanities as political project, means learning what to ‘think with’ for how to ‘think through’ civics as the never-ending process (becoming/individuation) of figuring out what the transition from political to civic can mean and would look like infra-structurally, and what it means locally (for the local organization of [political] agencies and their translocal ties) – perhaps, therein, it this political project is also a project to develop an empirical, concrete, and integrative ethics of care. In order to follow through with a genuinely political project in general, and in particular a project that is about different and perhaps even new modes of belonging. Liberal Arts and Humanities must cease their ties to what I have called (in various talks, forums, but also publications, including throughout Care, Power, Information) White Collar academia, which is certainly characterized by what others have called disciplinary decadence, urban normativity, and so. What I contrast it with is Blue sCollarship. Blue sCollars are political, empirical, and in the thick of things, as well as they are doing theory, but for them theory means ‘thinking together with Others’: Theory should not be a monologue or a monoculture of mind, and Others is a very open notion that means to take all kinds of Others, and their knowledges and agency seriously. And that is a lot of work. And a lot if happens in, with, and through infrastructure, and it always significantly maintains, transforms, and creates infrastructure. And infrastructure is the basis of everything else, such as the economy or the job market – and precisely not the other way round.
This brings me to the final and important point of this exercise: Why we need higher education and research, why we need scholarship and scholars to thrive, to be funded, to be respected, but also to be committed. Why we need academia, aka insitutions of higher education and research. But also why we need more multiversity than university, Blue sCollars instead of White Collar academicians, and more intellectuals than anti-intellectualism – wherein, however, being an intellectual does not mean that one is ignorant, privileged, or elevated with regard to non-academic knowledges or material concerns . I could expand these lists, but you get the idea, and, yes, it should be an open list to begin with. And Liberal Arts should, perhaps, mean exactly that ‘arts’ (perhaps in the many meanings of the Latin ‘ars’ and it precurors) should be ‘liberal’ in the sense that they are ‘open’ and ‘opening’: they should be open and opening knowledges and techniques – aka Liberal Arts as the open and opening techniques and knowledges of infrastructure. Therein, they become important for the future.
There are now several practical and political consequences that follow from this…..
You can find these conclusions in the revised and published version in ‘Care, Power, Information’ (Routledge, forthcoming)
“To be political is to emerge, to appear, to exist” (Lewis Gordon 2014: 88)