Thursday, April 01, 2010

Michael Meranze, Meet Jean-Francois Lyotard

Here's hoping the faculty at SUNY's doctoral-granting institutions read Michael Meranze's response to the University of California's Commission on the Future's first public hearing.

As I read it, I kept flashing back to key moments in Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. Not quite the parts that Michael Berube focused on in What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (having to do with legitimation via paralogy and narrative rather than consensus)--well, at least not immediately. No, the parts that go like this:

The decision-makers...attempt to manage these clouds of sociality according to input/output matrices, following a logic which implies that their elements are commensurable and that the whole is determinable. They allocate our lives for the growth of power. In matters of social justice and of scientific truth alike, the legitimation of that power is based on its optimizing the system's performance--efficiency. The application of this criterion to all our games necessarily entails a certain level of terror, whether soft or hard: be operational (that is, commensurable) or disappear. (xxix)

And this:

By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted, but because his ability to participate has been threatened (there are many ways to prevent one from playing). The decision makers' arrogance, which in principle has no equivalent in the sciences, consists in the exercise of terror. It says, "Adapt your aspirations to our ends--or else." (63)

And this:

the process of delegitimation and the predominance of the performance criterion are sounding the knell of the age of the Professor: a professor is no more competent than memory bank networks in transmitting established knowledge, no more competent than interdisciplinary teams in imagining new moves or new games. (53; see more generally "Education and Its Legitimation through Performativity," 47-53)

Yeah, I know, many a digital diploma mill has sprung up from the last quotation, particularly when combined with Lyotard's bizarre semi-celebration of "the temporary contract" (66). But it's the prior two passages that concern me here today. What Meranze helps make clear is that Lyotard's target in The Postmodern Condition is not simply Habermas's commitment to legitimation by consensus, with its "violence to the heterogeneity of language games" (xxv). Actually, it's more specific than that: the supplantation of appeals to truth and justice by appeals to efficiency and performativity. I wonder if by this criterion Lyotard would find the UCOF to be a terrorist organization?

Be that as it may, it's worth noting that Meranze's critiques pick up where Berube leaves off in his discussion of tuition, circa 2006:

your average state university now receives only a token amount of financial support from the state. Institutions like Penn State and the University of Michigan are nearly off the public books altogether, receiving only a tiny fraction of their budgets from state funds. The state provided 45 percent of Penn State's budget as recently as 1984-1985, when in-state tuition was $2,562; that figure is now down to 10 percent, and in-state tuition is $11,508. The correlation speaks for itself. The costs of college, in state after state, have been passed along to individual families, as higher education has gradually been reconceived as a private investment for individuals rather than a social good for the entire nation. (281-282)

And here:

That's what "partial privatization" is all about: passing the social costs of public goods onto individuals, leaving students and families to fend for themselves as best they can. If this is fine with you, so be it: you're a conservative or a libertarian. If you think this is a suspect or foolhardy enterprise, you may already be a liberal or progressive. (283)

And if you think it's a terrorist attack on truth, justice, and the heterogeneity of language games, then you're probably a French postmodernist.

Neither Berube nor Christopher Newfield are, but they both argue, in What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts? and Unmaking the Public University, that the attack on public universities and the attack on public institutions of all kinds have gone hand-in-hand in the dominant forms of conservative and libertarian politics of the past generation. What remains to be seen, in both California and New York, is whether some other politics might be possible.

[Update 1 (5:40 am): Sarah Amsler takes on managerialism in British higher ed.]


Chris Newfield said...

nice post Constructivist. I think Lyotard's deep definition of postmodernism is a culture ruled by optimization narratives. His critique of PM is the critique of optimization as the justification of economic determinism. this is enormously relevant to the current situation, which is in most ways a replay of the power shift of the 1980s as the business world regained an advantage lost to its economic failure in the 1970s, and did so by saying that it had failed when its unsuccessful strategies had not been followed closely enough. There will be no politics other than further faculty adaptation to the "new normal" when the new normal first presents itself as stable - as "the worst is over" or "there's nothing more to see here folks." At some point later, the new normal will re-infuriate people via some unknown catalyst - a Regent saying faculty should never have gotten used to the idea of pensions, for example. But that too may not be enough. The most likely outcome is extended decline into mediocrity. This has already happened with the US global position in higher education attainment, and only specialists even noticed. It's been happening in US manufacturing for 40 years, where the example of Germany shows that it is completely unnecessary. The psychological dynamics that allow groups to oppose the kind of determinism that Lyotard talked about are not well understood, but it's clear that what happens without this popular opposition is a decline towards the downgrading of the quality of life of hundreds of millions of people. To quote the hybrid on Battlestar Galactia, "All this has happened before. All this will happen again." But it doesn't have to happen to us if people let themselves comprehend just how BAD the unopposed tendency really is

Michael Meranze said...

I have to agree with both of you. I don't tend to think of Lyotard but it is the case that the language game of the day is efficiency and that the economic determinism has been linked to a technological determinism (having to do with the digital) that seeks to prevent any alternative visions of value and seeks to reduce everyone to completely isolated consumers at computer screens. What is remarkable is that the new University managers are throwing themselves headlong into an embrace with a financial model and technological model that has given us not only a world-wide recession but global climate change. Faculty need to start realizing that they need to organize a counter-voice against a problem that is now international and will end up destroying all of the local ecologies of learning and thinking.