For The University: Democracy and the Future of the University


For The University: Democracy and the Future of the University by Thomas Docherty, published by Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

“…what I will call the unconditional university or the university without condition: the principle right to say everything, whether be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it.”

(“The Future of the Profession or the University without Condition”, Jacques Derrida).

Derrida’s articulation of the university, especially with regard to the public sphere acquires a critical currency, especially in the contemporary scenario when the existence of the public university is constantly threatened by neo-liberal forces that systematically attempt to curtail funding on higher education, primarily viewing the university as a space that should produce research with immediate utility. It is perhaps within this larger discourse of the university in its relation with the public sphere and the notion of ‘play’ embedded within it, which one needs to locate Thomas Docherty’s book For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution. Divided into six chapters, one cannot miss how carefully crafted and delineated the chapters are in terms of addressing specific questions. However in this brief review, my attempt is to parse through what I consider to be the fundamental ethical question that the book is trying to address: “Is the university, as we often like to believe, to be protected as a privileged safety-valve of dissensual consciousness – or must it rather be conceived outside of the romantic logic of Enlightenment emancipation?”

Public Sphere and Citizenship

The university, as Docherty argues is not merely a receptacle of truth or simply a site for extension of one’s freedom, rather it is an ‘event’, something that is in the process of being and becoming. This ‘event’ is facilitated by an act of participative citizenship where a consensus is arrived only after systematic argument from different points of view. It is precisely this weighing of one argument against another which shapes the idea of legitimacy that Habermas had foregrounded in his conceptualization of the public sphere. Docherty regrets that this idea of legitimacy seems to have lost its grounding in the university where guidelines that are formulated with little or no dialogue gradually become laws, maintained and perpetuated by a bureaucratic framework that devalues autonomy and upholds an increasing politicization of the academy. Therefore, as he rightly points out that it is not owing to the radical credentials of the university for which it is under attack rather it is threatened by a drive that seeks to homogenize the public sphere and curb dissent. In fact, identity politics in its mode of criticism of the university is “…actually complicit with the very object of its supposed critique” because this identity politics ends up being trapped by a market-driven economy, something that it had initially attempted to resist. Hence, before defending the “idea” of the university commonly thought to be a site of privilege and determined by the principle of pragmatism in the current scenario, he argues that there is a need to engage in a quest of what constitutes the “idea” itself and rearrange it along lines of social justice and democracy.

“Play” and Research

In the institutionalized space of the university, the concept of “play” far from being a Schillerian reconciliation of the ‘sensuous drive’(Sinntrieb) and the ‘formal impulse’(Formtrieb) is treated as being opposed to efficiency and therefore what emerges is a notion of ‘contained play’ that eliminates any risk of transgression. As an effort to accomplish this “contained play”, spaces are created within the university that not only sublimates the risk factor involved but are also subsumed within a consumerist-style entertainment and mode of pleasure production. It ends up creating a simulated image of student experience where education becomes kitsch and “the university struggles against becoming a mere extension of the culture industry”. Docherty suggests that one of the ways by which this can be contested is by encouragement of ‘playful waste’ that produces a kind of temporality and trains the faculty of imagination, within which the possibility of historical change is embedded. ‘Play’ is subversive and therefore challenges the figure of the authority. However Docherty borrowing from Hannah Arendt argues for an alternative notion of authority, that implies an obedience in which man retain their freedom. Therefore to return back to the question with which I had started this review, this book which otherwise raise very pertinent questions enters into the vicious logic of Enlightenment rationality and fails to transcend the Kantian binary of the public and private use of reason in constructing the ‘idea’ of the university. In my opinion, this is somewhat paradoxical because later in the book Docherty emphasizes on the need for a holistic approach with regard to research and teaching, in contrast to the division that it had earlier proposed implicitly. He writes:

Why would one want to teach a first-year undergraduate, for instance, to the         limits of one’s own research? It would be a little like trying to teach the basic     principles of arithmetic by a thorough exposure to and engagement with the   intricacies of multidimensional space and fractal geometries. The undergraduate     needs time to bring themselves up to a certain kind of speed, time to do the      reading and thinking required to be able to cope with the advanced searches that         constitute research itself…. Again, this is not to say that good teaching and good    research can’t take place in the University; but it is to say that such good teaching and research as does occur happens despite the prevailing myths – such as that, in          the present instance, of ‘research-led teaching’ – governing the institution(87).

Hence the privilege often given to research at the cost of teaching is undercut whereby over-specialised teaching at the initial stages based on one’s area of expertise is debunked in favour of a more balanced and holistic approach to learning. Further he states that critical knowledge is constantly being replaced with controlled management of information whereby the assessment of learners is based on standardized norms of intellectual capital that do not distinguish between various kinds of learners. In a neo-liberal framework, this homogenization becomes necessary to pacify the tax-payer who suffers a sense of impoverishment because he feels that it is his money that is used up for sustaining the ideals of students from middle-class background going to a public-funded university. Therefore, this complex nexus of economy and desire must be able to produce a substantial body of student population for serving the interests of service-sectors. However from Docherty’s perspective, this notion of the university is somewhat delimited because it not only ends up reinforcing a narrow notion of public sphere itself but also constricts the ethical relationship that the university shares with the society at large.

Therefore, keeping in mind the key-note set by this review, Docherty’s vision of the future university is based on this non-condition that Derrida had spoken of, whereby the non-condition is the political resistance to medieval conceptions of the universitas (as an undifferentiated social whole) and shaped by a liberal ideal as well as a postmodern ethic of randomness. Perhaps the need to revive politics in relation to the question of the university is never felt more alarmingly than now.

– Sritama Chatterjee


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