TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Vladimir Biti (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Passing Judgements

Marija Španjić (University of Zagreb, Croatia)



The question of values is not an easy one. It is one of those unsettled and unsettling questions that bring to the fore only more of the kind. These questions provoke the kind of endless discussions and theoretical work Bill Readings would like to promote in his work on “the university in ruins”,(1) and which I also find to be valuable, but perhaps also in no need of promoting. I must agree with Readings, though, when he stresses the importance of theorizing of what he calls the scene of teaching. This concerns not only the teaching, but also what is being taught. The questions of value of what is taught extend to scholar's involvement with the knowledge transmitted and created not only in the scene of teaching, for the world refuses to stay outside.

The questions of the value of scholarship are of course nothing new. They have been posed for centuries now, and the talk of the crisis of both university and humanities has been rather customary in this context. Numerous discussions of the issues of the nature of knowledge, the role of the intellectual, or various responsibilities the university should or must uphold in the face of some urgency have structured the thought of humanities in particular. In the discourse of the university crisis humanities function as an emblem for its basic paradox: the „disinterested pursuit (for knowledge) serving pedagogical and political interest“(2). It would appear that it has become into a sort of humanities’ mission to both discover and offer the remedy for the paralyzing terror that sets the university crisis loose.

However, this crisis talk itself has also had a powerful impact upon humanities. For as much as the crisis is said to be dangerous, and even more so for humanities than other agencies within the university institution, it nonetheless helped humanities to determine the common identity of otherwise very differing activities „we“ perform. For, if „we“ are an endangered species, „we“ are also painfully aware of ourselves in the very process of diagnosing and curing the crisis. Pressed against the same wall by the same sense of urgency, a multiplicity of singular undertakings becomes into a „we“ opposed on the one hand to „sciences“ with regard to the principle of knowledge, and on the other to the crude money-making world and societal governance with regard to the remnants of the so called humanistic values.

Reflection on the crisis unfolds as a testimony of it, and only deepens it, while simultaneously enforcing the sense of unity by means of the narrative of „our“ passage through it. The testimonial enterprise of humanities amounts to a justification of the work „we“ do and the time „we“ spend on such objects as culture or literature in the face of „gross inequalities of the world“ that, being more important, „require our attention“.(3) Both „we“ and our objects of study bear witness to the world: this is the way how Dennis Walder, another participant in that discourse, explains the impact of the humanistic theoretical expertise within the university. „(T)estimony seems to be composed of bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance, acts that cannot be constructed as knowledge nor assimilated into full cognition,“ writes Shoshana Felman, discussing the cultural value of testimony. She concludes that in a testimony „language is in process of trial and error“, not able to offer „pure theory“. What it accomplishes is „a speech act, rather than simply formulat(ing) a statement.“(4) In that way the perceived trauma that prompts the crisis talk becomes transferable and its discourse continues to invigorate, with passion, the ruptured identity it attempts to narrate, and quite often to cure. Regarding themselves to be an emblem of the university, humanities united around the engaging work of testimony represent the university in a nutshell: diverse, mutually conflicting, and yet united in the service of humanity. That unity is continually lost and recuperated through the so called crisis management.

It is exactly this well-established crisis narrative followed by redemption, then, what Readings wants to absolve and transform into a narrative of pragmatic institution that refuses to mourn its purportedly lost unity. But as his metaphor of ruins indicates, even though he renounces the crisis, he feels obliged to bear witness to the events of recent history, and even as he renounces the unifying principle of knowledge, truth and identity, he nevertheless subscribes to it, unwittingly but nonetheless making himself into a participant of an unrecognized consent.

Readings' account of university's destiny takes a distance from redeeming narratives that put humanities in the difficult position in the nexus of culture and reason, „the screen onto which the university projects its fantasies of unity“(5). He proceeds by offering an account of university's history: it has gone through being first the University of Reason, and then of Culture, while today it has arrived at the ruined site of its allegedly glorious history, being or threatening to become mere servant to the Society of Excellence. Such an end of ideology is linked to the demise of the Nation-State that relied on the University of Culture to provide it with subjected citizens. Globalisation induced by the corporate capital erasing the Nation-State borders spawns a fragmentation of alleged unity. At the ruined site of the university multiversity of Excellence emerges, and the question of „the form, the inner principle of knowledge“(6), which culture, literature or theory had in past been said to provide the university with, becomes more problematic than ever, since the latter had in present lost their ideological impact.

It is this very question of the principle of knowledge that Readings engages in his book, mobilizing the discourse of crisis that he envisaged to criticize. He concedes that the knowledge is better understood through ethical considerations staked in „the scene of teaching“, than as mere „transaction that can be concluded“(7), entangling himself in such a way with one of the oldest topics of the University crisis discourse. Nevertheless, he insists that “(w)e have to recognize that the grounds on which we used to make large claims for the humanities have been undermined“ (UR 90), that the power of the university at large is in decline, and that „the intellectual as a public figure“ has been eliminated (UR 91). There exists no longer such public space where common human capacity of rational deliberation can serve as the ground of communicability. Even less can the university function as a model for community. We do not even agree to disagree anymore: „enunciation now proceeds from what I would call peripheral singularities“, marked by „radical heterogeneity of individuals“, such as „gender, race, etc.“ (UR 115) The very odd structure of singularity allows for no repetition and hence no total self-consciousness either. No one speaks for all anymore, and no one ever could. What is more: no one even speaks for him/herself. There is no subject, and hence no ideology, even though there still remains the idea of culture and some form of ideology-critique which he ascribes to Cultural Studies. The concept of institutional pragmatism is meant to recognize the fact of university's historical anachronism, while at the same time using that recognition tactically for the purposes of continued dwelling in the ruins that remain.

Consumerism is the only force that homogenizes singularities, but it does a different job than the ideology has ever done: it leaves behind no „obvious citadel to be captured“ (UR 118), making the question of participation and inclusion, the narrative of redemption, obsolete. „What to do instead?“ is the organizing question posed by the author. From here on the argument, it is claimed, abandons any unifying idea, any attempt to propose new referents for the emptied idea of culture: „we need to recognize“ writes Readings, „that the dereferentialization of the University's function opens a space in which we can think the notions of community and communication differently“ (UR 124). Even though Readings explicitly states that the solution is not „in building of a better institution“ (UR 125), this is however what he seems to be doing by proposing his concept of a dissensual community, for that concept would serve to organize different „short term collaborative projects“ (UR 176) instantiated in the wake of the not so regrettable breakdown of the old disciplinary structure (UR 126).

Dissensual community that has „abandoned the notion of identity and unity“ (UR 127) is one that does „thinking without identity“, making the university into just „one more place among others where the question of being-together is posed, rather than an ideal community“ (UR 127). This community calls for a revaluation of teaching, transforming its time, the time of education, from closed and calculable line of „passage from ignorance to enlightenment“ (UR 127) into „a complex time of thought“ that is „structurally incomplete“ (UR 128). What is ruined but, significantly, also must be refused, is a metanarrative of Bildung, the story of education as emancipation. Being as we are enmeshed in the activity of passing judgments, we are asked to finally take responsibility for the judgments we make, „responsibility to an obligation that exceeds the subject's capacity to calculate“ (UR 133), accepting the fact that „the effects of those judgments are themselves up for discussion“ (UR 134).

Even though the workers of the university find themselves in no enviable situation, this nonetheless enables them to reimagine the pedagogic relation within a different time-frame as „a dialogic web of obligations of thought“ (UR 144). Just one place among others where being-together is exercised, neither the positive nor negative framework for critical activity (UR 145), the university would do best if it cultivated „the discomfort“ it feels at its situation (UR 146) by cultivating the name of Thought instead of the idea of truth. This would pose the challenge to the representational claim of democracy (UR 147), challenge based upon „a specific chronotope of the educational relation“ (UR 149). There can no longer be the kind of self-sufficient identity, independent product of Bildung that upholds the fiction of representation. The open horizon of Thought that has no intrinsic meaning prevents the presumption of autonomy. The teacher speaks as a rethor, not as magister (UR 158) and does not resolve arguments – arguments are kept open to discussion because the empty name of Thought is „structurally incapable of final determination“ and „cannot be given a content or signification that would allow the closure of the debate“ (UR 160). An attempt to say what Thought was or what it should be „must take the responsibility for itself as such an attempt“ (UR 160), since through its emptiness Thought does not function as an alibi behind which to hide (that would be an idea!): „the attribution of any signification to it is an act that must understand itself as such, as having certain rhetorical and ethical weight“ (UR 160). However, Readings warns his readers that there still remains an imminent danger of Thought's „slipping back into an idea“ (UR 165), one that has to be met „with a constant vigilance“ (UR 165).

All this being said, one is left with the impression of a deep seated paradox. This opening of the danger within the Thought itself confirms that Readings' account also articulates the idea of humanities through the familiar metaphor of crisis. Is Thought structurally incapable of closure or should it be made to become such and then kept open by our constant vigilance? If it is not by itself incapable of closure, namely, then the vigilance is necessary, for the crisis is imminent. However, in that case Thought is not what it is said to be and its preservation requires some sort of consensual working through the crisis by defining what Thought ought to be. If so, the historical account of university's demise is not accurate, since the globalisation does not force the change from the society of nation-states into a society of indeterminate identities as it is said it does.

 If, on the other hand, Thought is structurallyincapable of closure, than no signification/determination could be attributed to it, and it would be protected from any closure in advance, making Readings' account unnecessary. Unnecessary that is, unless it is also a form of ideology-critique, unmasking the thinking actually done as somehow false in respect with what Thought really is. In that case, however, Readings would only manifest his desire to end the dissent by defining Thought in any terms whatsoever, since it is in its nature to remain undefined. This obviously runs counter to his proposed aims.

Moreover, if the closure of Thought’s signification/determination is structurally impossible, which I also tend to believe, how is it that we could ever understand it as an act, and even more so – recognize its „certain rhetorical and ethical weight“? How could anyone in such conditions even purport to claim responsibility for such an act? Would not such claim be irresponsible, even violent? If we are presumed to be responsible for an act of thinking acted out in a scene of teaching consisting of multiple obligations, what would we be exactly taking responsibility for? Readings here seems to ask us to make an account, to calculate the structurally incomplete relations of judgment, while at the same time we are said to be incapable of even accounting for ourselves, which would in any case imply much easier calculations. The scene of teaching, or rather the ruin, is described as „sedimentation of historical differences that remind us that Thought cannot be present to itself“, as a locus of „the traumatic return of repressed memory“(UR 171). Can we take responsibility for Thought's eternal receding into the oblivion of where it came from? Are we born responsible?

If „we do what we can while leaving space for what we cannot envisage to emerge“ (UR 176), as Readings invites us as dwellers of this ruined site to do, are we also responsible for that emerging? If we did what he asks us to do, we would be making this impossible empty signifier of Thought into a secured space for its appearance, commanded by Thought to do it justice before we attempt to gain knowledge of it (UR 162). In this way its otherness would encounter only respect from our side.

Many times invoked to support this account, Jacques Derrida also spoke of the coming of the unknown, addressing the question of responsibility of humanistic scholar „faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so (...) only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity“ (W&D, 370). Let us consider the possible analogy here. Both Readings and Derrida feel they need to do justice to that which emerges, which seeks ethical relation to be recognized, demands our responsibility in facing it. But while for Readings such coming is awaited by Thought, ready for its arrival, for Derrida there is nothing that could prevent it from happening as precisely the new – it emerges anyway exceeding any preparation of a name that might await it, having no name, giving us no time to prepare for its arrival, catching us in the middle of our routine, challenging us to speak (it would be irresponsible not to), to give it a name. Naming „it“ is impossible to avoid, and since speaking its name inevitably means filling „it“ with presence that cannot be its essence, along with naming the question of justice emerges, for the accomplished presence necessarily does injustice to the unnamable.

It would seem that Readings has been telling us the story of university's life – its history – its passage through time, but all the while developing another story: of university's (and that means humanities') transgression of the principle of knowledge with regard to what historical evidence has been invoked to give it sufficient ground. The unwanted survival of crisis discourse happens in between these opposing currents of the argument. Readings’ story of the university's history „blindly replicates“, as Dominick LaCapra concludes, „the globalizing, bureaucratically administrative, transnationally corporate university itself“(8), and it ends up in a totalizing account of abstract intellectual history of ideas, creating unwittingly yet another grand narrative. On the other hand, and contrary to his stated intentions, on the theoretical ground of defining the principle of knowledge his argument remains „restricted to a strategy of reversal“ (UR 35) of prompting an „opposite but symmetrical extreme with respect to tendencies he criticizes“, thus opposing „full transparency, communication, and consensus with aporia, differends and dissensus“ (UR 35). The clear-cut rupture in the history (the death of the University of Culture) corresponds to the clear-cut change in the way an intellectual does her/his job. But, of course, neither of the cuts is as clear as they are perhaps desired to be. That would surely end the crisis and eliminate the nostalgia, but it would also end Thought.

So, Thought (the monstrous) emerges as „the endless survival of what has not been fully understood“(9). Consensus on Thought is impossible, as is dissensus, since in language itself, quite unwittingly, we sign contracts deprived of fully obligatory force. One such sign/signature, in Readings' as well as in my own account, is this many times conjured „we“.



1 B. Readings The University in Ruins. Cambridge&London: Harvard University Press, 1996.
2 M. Redfield Introduction. Theory, Globalization, Cultural Studies, and the Remains of the University. Diacritics 31.3 (2001): 8.
3 D. Walder: „Decolonizing the (Distance) Curriculum“, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 6.2 (2007): 190.
4 S. Felman & D. Laub: Testimony. Crisis of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis, and history. New York: Routledge, 1992.: 5.
5 Redfield, Introduction, 9.
6 Redfield, Introduction, 9.
7 B. Readings University in Ruins, 19. Hereafter abbreviated UR.
8 D. LaCapra „The University in Ruins?“, Critical Inquiry 25.1 (1998): 35. Hereafter abbreviated UR?
9 C. Caruth Unclaimed Experience. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.: 72.

5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)

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