Thinking Through Bureaucracy

Just read this account of the 21st century university by David Marshall.  He, quite rightly, takes on the forms and functions of traditional academic disciplines as he argues that we need to not only acknowledge the bureaucracy that creates our academic landscape, but think through it.

But I disagree with his glib history which argues:  “it seems to me that the problem in the humanities today is that we have twenty-first century students, a twentieth-century curriculum, and a nineteenth-century bureaucracy.”  I think it’s precisely the opposite, we have a 21st century bureaucracy – – i.e. a neoliberal bureaucracy that separates power and responsibility, ensures continued bureaucratic growth without ensuring growing faculty or knowledge or knowledge-producing activities — that works towards achieve nineteenth-century ends (disinterested knowledge that serves the state, a form of liberal education that serves only the upperclass, primarily men, and almost entirely white people.)  To think through bureaucracy is not to point to how little has changed, but rather how much has changed to achieve the exact same, somewhat problematic, ends.

His own article bears this out, for the growth of centers, labs, and cross-disciplinary initiatives that attract private funding – – his solution to a nineteenth-century bureaucracy — more often than not continue to serve nineteenth-century ends.  These centers, labs, and cross-disciplinary initiatives are only possible because in the twenty-first century, we’re committed to building bureaucracy rather than re-imagining what education is, how to produce knowledge, or transforming how we understand authority, humanities, or culture.


Just read this conversation about the university between Tiziana Terranova and Marc Bousquet.  All very interesting, all very important, and written in 2004 – yikes. These problems are intensifying and the conversation hasn’t really changed.

The question of labor within the university is immensely important for all the reasons that they identify but also for simpler reasons – – when Scott Walker wants to structure pay, disciplines, universities around “degrees in jobs,” the knee-jerk reaction of many is: but we give degrees in disciplines! in fields of study! not in jobs! But the more accurate response, perhaps, is that labor – paid and unpaid, in the present and as an end goal of one’s university experience – is already at the heart of the university.  The fact that we don’t see it, that both sides willfully ignore the reality in order to make tired old arguments based on ideology rather than reality, is the interesting part.

As Bousquet says, “Really, ‘ivory tower’ is the classic ideologeme — practically un-dislodgeable from any point of view.”

I was surprised in my own position the other day to unearth the 1978 charter for the center where I work.  Arguing for the importance of extending the boundaries of thought beyond campus, it institutionalized certain kinds of community engagement: an advisory board comprised of community members, collaborative events, and public programs.  Arriving at the center in 2012, I’ve had to fight really hard to extend the center’s ties to the community.  What convinces people about the need to establish these community relationships and opportunities for engagement is not the possibility of new knowledge, new research, or more interesting conversations about old knowledge and old research, but rather the inevitability of the death of the “ivory tower” model of the research center.  But, clearly, even in 1978, there was an embrace of many of the kinds of public humanities initiatives that I am beginning here.  What inspired these initiatives is impossible to tell from the charter, but it’s clear that people have internalized an institutional history that is not accurate.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I just finished this book – what an absolute delight.  I especially like the parts about mothers, and the unbelievably beautiful ending.  This is certainly a book where middles matter – and yet the ending works so well because it doesn’t close down the possibilities of the middles but really enhances the characters.

Take this exchange:

“I did all I could.


You did enough, Mami, Lola said, but she refused to hear it. Turned her ruined back to us.


I did all I could and it still wasn’t enough.”

Doing and achieving are at odds, and being is the tricky business that everyone confronts. Life is the word for Oscar’s long wait for sex, it’s also the word for struggles in all shapes and sizes.



A happy return to Foucault’s “Truth and Power”:

“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (73).

It’s always good to return to Foucault, but especially today, when I listened to this conversation about Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  Why is it so difficult to believe that this book doesn’t convey the ‘truth’ of Native experience even if it draws attention to the possibility of Native history and Native sources?  And yes – – the messy politics of worldliness means that history and knowledge are also quite complicated.