From the Oxford Commission of 1850

Poor was a shifty word, even then:

“Their statutes suppose the Fellows to be students and poor; and under the word ‘poor’ they did not comprise those classes which the ingenuity of modern interpretation has included under the expression – sons of gentlemen of fortune, who as yet have no income of their own; they meant the poor, scholars drawn from the lower classes of the community – ‘pauperes, paupers et indigentes’” (235)

With great power comes great responsibility . . .

Reading about Neoliberalism has been delightful so far, as it’s given me language for so many of my experiences.  It’s also terrifying, because it doesn’t just articulate a theory, it explains everyday life.

One quote from “Neoliberalizing Space” was particularly striking:

“In the asymmetrical scale politics of neoliberalism, local institutions and actors were being given responsibility without power, while international institutions and actors were gaining power without responsibility; a form of regulatory dumping was occurring at the local scale, while macrorule regimes were being remade in regressive and marketized ways” (Peck and Tickell, 386).

Peck and Tickell are explaining the rise of neoliberalism and its global reach, but what I find so striking is the way such an asymmetrical scale proliferates throughout local, national, transnational structures.  Within the university, for instance, individuals have less and less power, more and more labor.  Or, within schemes of ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’ (think Teach for America), the individuals participating only benefit to the extent that they buy into the institutions’ overarching power (here the institution does not mean the local school where they work) in ways that make up for their individual powerlessness.

And, despite the fact that most people are quite aware of the way that power works in a neoliberal regime (we fulfill our responsibilities, we accept our powerlessness or fight for meaningless forms for power), we don’t always try to represent what such power looks like or feels like.  There’s a reason why Spiderman says, “With great power comes great responsibility” – we want to believe that the institutions, structures, and people with power also have responsibility.  The reality that’s so hard to swallow is that they don’t – not necessarily because of individual stances, decisions, etc – but because of structural conditions.


Barbarian Violence

In 1837, the university system in England was celebrated by some for its slow-moving nature, its resistance to change.  This, of course, is important to remember when we think about the knowledge universities offer the public.  In the midst of debates about the university’s proper relationship to the church, the value of the university was that it was a force of faith, tradition, and moderation in times of conflict, transition and debate.  It was an institution grounded in the past, not futurity.  As one 1837 article asserts:

“[universities] may remain, relics of a system which has passed away – relics like those noble buildings which that old system raised among us, so massive in their construction, and so cemented in all their parts, that nothing but a barbarian violence can overturn, and no art adapt them without absurdity to the false, frivolous, pernicious purposes of modern innovation” (445)

Universities, here, are not a site of “modern innovation,” they are threatened by it.  Today, in a moment of much literal and metaphoric violence against the university, such a conservative assertion could perhaps be useful.  For we so often claim the university in the name of the future (for good reasons, of course), but we forget that the university also connects us to both important and problematic pasts.

Such a passage also reveals the difference of our historical moment: we no longer have faith that universities will persist – that they cannot be easily overturned, or adapted.  But in thinking them frail (which they are, of course) we forget the ways that they have endured, not simply as bastions of learning, but also as relics.

To argue for the importance of the university today, we have to recognize its contradictory position – how it aims to advance learning and knowledge but perpetuates old forms of power (class-based hierarchies, ‘manliness,’ nationalism, whiteness).

Anachronism and Emancipation

I’m more and more interested in theories of radical democracy because I think they do a good job of revealing the ways that structure and space matter, but also thinking that the answer (emancipation!) does not necessarily lie in either structure or space.  They also show how everything is political – EVERYTHING – without necessarily resolving the politics into a single form or project.

Having just read Jelica Šumič’s “Anachronism and Emancipation” essay, though, I would like to put pressure on her (and perhaps also Laclau’s) account of anachronism.  Because while she quite rightfully argues that structure’s inconsistencies (such as anachronism) “can only be made visible after the fact” (190), she still believes that anachronism is almost always a site of structural inconsistency.  In her words (with some of Laclau’s thrown in):

“Anachronism is not emancipatory in itself, rather, it only points to the structural inconsistency of the social, indicating in this way that any socio-political arrangement that emerges within this undecidable terrain remains irreducibly contingent, non-groundable.  On another account, however, the liberating effects of anachronism cannot be denied either.  Contemporary politics of emancipation is therefore confronted with the task of recognizing the irreducible undecidability of any institution of the social ‘and tak[ing] full advantage of the political possibilities that this undecidability opens’” (188)

The problem of seeing anachronism as a “structural inconsistency” that opens up “undecidability” is to forget the question of visibility that she points to later in the essay.  For anachronisms are not always – I would even suggest not usually – visible because they are so often implicit in the hegemonic structure.   It is for this reason that Dickens has no problem calling the Jewish Riah “a ghost of another time,” the English had no difficulty suggesting that the Irish were in need of education and development.  Within the structure of modernization and empire, there are always ‘premodern’ people seen as such precisely because modernity has define itself against its anachronistic others.  But this form of anachronism only becomes inconsistent when you see it as disrupting and disturbing the structure of modernity, rather than a product of this very structure.

Which is all to say, that we think in terms of anachronism to make one version of the social (in this case, the modern, the empire) cohere, but anachronism is also the very thing that can disrupt this coherence.  Visibility matters, especially because we only see anachronisms anachronistically.

Art and the Age

 “You may say the men who took all this trouble about works of art and gave their lives to making them are dead, they belong to a past state of society, we have our minds fixed on different aims now.  Well to a certain extent that is true, and yet there is another wonder: for there are still men alive who understand what these dead artists meant, who chiefly think of them and their works and the times which produced them; and some of these are themselves engaged with no less energy though perhaps with less success than those dead men in producing works of art to-day: they are neither foolish nor ignorant as a rule, and though some of them may be accused of being dreamers without sympathy for the life of men in the present, that is not a necessary characteristic of them, and we should wrong them if we thought it was general with them”  (William Morris)

Newman and Habit

Newman is such a strange, interesting thinker (and person). At a time of growing secularism, when history and historicism was acquiring a force of its own (“the spirit of the age is a novel expression, JS Mill said), Newman legitimated history’s force towards profoundly religious ends.  Newman explains his own conversion as much of a historicist conviction as a religious belief.  He concluded that the Protestant church was not historically continuous, – it was new, an offshoot of a more continuous, more historical, and thereby more ‘true’ church.  If he believed in history, he must be a Catholic.  And so he was one/became one (tenses are constantly confused in his story of his life).

I am attracted to Newman because of his contradictions, and my own contradictory desires and beliefs.  Because, if he is an extremely conservative thinker (belief, manliness, tradition rule supreme), his thoughts on habit, in particular, really radicalize one’s conception of everyday life.  For him, both belief and knowledge are habits.  Not something you learn or practice while in school, at mass, but something that you institutionalize and embody so that the shape one’s very conception of the world (no surprise that Viswanathan has an entire chapter on Newman in Outside the Fold – his belief is world-constituting and then some).  His emphasis on habit reminds me that realism doesn’t just create a world through structures (narrative and otherwise) but by depicting the everyday, the ‘particular’ habits of specific characters.  And we do not need to change structures to change the ways we apprehend the world, we merely need to change our habits.  What we believe, what we know is not what we outwardly dedicate our labour towards, what we attend to, but what we inwardly give time to, what we take for granted.

In our own moment, understanding knowledge as habit is pretty radical because pursuing knowledge is only associated with ends – careers, money, status, cultural capital.  Thus, beneath the gendered language and the somewhat lumbering prose, there’s a pretty interesting thought:

“Hence it is that his education is called ‘Liberal.’  A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.  This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.  And now the question is asked me, What is the use of it?” (58)


Of course, I disagree with the attributes he suggests (who says knowledge leads to “calmness” or “moderation”?), but I do think that a student’s university education should change his/her habits, should shape his/her mind in ways that not only affect how they read texts, but how they apprehend the world.  A cynical person would say that habit is just another word for ideology – and, in some instances, I might agree – but habit is also more than ideology.  Because, if one nurtures a habit of mind that privileges and prioritizes knowledge, one will be led into all kinds of contradictions (just like Newman!).  One will also see how tenuous Newman’s own resolutions are – even in habitualizing an openness to the unknown, an openness to a historical world stabilizes forms and thoughts that are otherwise in flux.

[a small side note: thank you to T. Church for his habits of mind this week.  Much appreciated.]