Tuesday, 29 April 2008

University and Utopia

This afternoon the Keele sociology research seminar series heard Mark Featherstone speak on his ongoing project on utopianism. In this session he concentrated on the utopian dimensions of the university campus, or rather the contradictory demands placed on it as a utopian space.

He began by outlining the difference between the commonplace understanding of the term and that deployed in the burgeoning field of utopia studies. Its object is not so much visions of the perfect world or the ideal society, but rather the key characteristics of utopias: spatial order and the control of thought. Utopia is an enclosed space constructed through executive power and authoritarianism, which rules out certain modes of thought and prescribes correct thinking. There is no room for internal opposition.

Unfortunately this vision of utopia has leaped off the pages of 1984 and become real blueprints that are layered on to reality. We are not talking large scale utopias here of the kind that led to the gas chamber and the gulag. (Post)modern utopias are small and comparatively limited, but for all that more pernicious and widespread. Drawing on the ideas of Castells and Virilio, Mark suggests contemporary capitalism is too fast and too interconnected to allow new stable certainties to form in the spaces vacated by the old. The viscosity of fluidic social space has allowed greater freedoms and opportunity for the few but these same processes also engendered a coagulation of 'paranoid reaction formations' which aspire to orderliness against the backdrop of global uncertainty. This is where utopianism comes back in. Utopias are the dominant species of reaction formations. Their control of space fosters illusions of certainty and safety. Paranoid anxiety underwrites calls for more prisons, more detention centres, more gated communities. The utopian promise is security in an increasingly insecure world.

Hence far from dying with the passing of Nazism and Stalinism from the stage of history, utopia is back with a vengeance. We live on Planet Utopia, a global society where the conditions for the formation of new utopias are always overdetermined by the operation of the networks that criss-cross the world. Speed, superconnectivity and volatility render the dominant tendency of mainstream politics toward technocratic management utopian in the original sense of the word. The idea society can be shaped by a pragmatic approach to reform is out of date. Long term planning is impossible. But here lies a paradox. The philosopher kings of old have been dethroned, but the only modes of governance deemed practicable to the new society is premised on intuitive thought. And it is only existing elites who are capable of exercising it.

Mark argues intuitive thought is thought at high speed, without deliberation and unencumbered by democracy. To give an example, American foreign policy is based on pre-emptive action. We don't need evidence to show Iran is up to dastardly things, we just know it is. This governance is well-suited to an unpredictable world. If the world is too complex, if social relations are moving too fast, if the causes of crisis cannot be fathomed and their origins are impossible to pin down, why bother?

As one node among many in the global network, the campus university lies across contradictory social processes. It has its utopian dimensions. Thought and modes of thought are segregated through spatialisation. Research and experimentation are separated from the library, the lecture theatre and the seminar room. And these are separated from accomodation, eating areas, administration and recreational facilities. Through the control of space thought is compartmentalised and disciplined. But the functions demanded of the university are different from other utopian spaces. It cannot retreat into itself. It always has to look beyond the campus to the world to produce adequate knowledge about it to feed the insatiable appetite of global capital. Therefore the university campus finds global contradictions telescoped into its tightly regulated social space. The utopian impulse is locked into antagonism with the possibility of freedom. This tension is expressed in a series of oppositions - outer space vs inner space, democracy vs enlightened despotism, developing critical thought vs the vocationalisation of degrees. Unfortunately, the utopian is in the ascendent and the balance of forces tilt in its favour.

Utopias are riddled with irony, and this case is no exception. Utopian campuses evoke market fundamentalism to legitimate the measures they take. However what is done in the name of the market is often not what's best for the market. To reap the rewards of global network society requires an ability to think imaginatively and creatively. One cannot take up an entrepreneurial position if the skills one has acquired have trundled off an HE assembly line. The global marketplace may generate utopias, but they can and do undermine its efficacy. Capital's gravediggers they're not - instead utopia is a sympomatic of fatigue.

A number of questions were raised. One asked about the operation of time in utopian settings. If you close of space, you close off history too, which is next to impossible in the era of turbo-charged global capitalism. What utopianism does is slow down time and, within an enclave, offer a possibility of micro-scale management. From my perspective, what was interesting was the seeming absence of agency in this world. Mark suggested there does remain a space for radical politics, and it lies in resisting the seductive qualities of utopianism. The aim is not to seek positions within the quai-natural relays of the network but finding ways of bringing them under control. He didn't elaborate further, but at least this model shows alternative possibilities to the postmodern totalitarianism of global capitalism. And one good place for alternatives to flourish are in the problematic environments of the contemporary campus university.

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