This Academic Life
  Social surplus
As often happens, after posting some thoughts I figured out a more concise way to say what I was trying to say. This often happens to me while running; go figure. But in any event, here's another crack at what I was trying to get at yesterday:

I am quite taken with George Bataille's notion of a "general economy," which is to say an arrangement of social relations that is and should be evaluated not in terms of the distribution of scarce resources that it encourages, but instead in terms of the surplus that it produces. [Obviously, this is an analytic; anything can be evaluated as a general economy, which simply means that we focus in the specific instance on the production of surplus instead of focusing on the distribution of scarce resources.] According to this conception, the most important social decision involves the use of the leftover product and the spending of excess in a way that necessarily escapes the bounds of the rational system that produced the surplus in the first place.

By definition, the use of a surplus is an irrational act, even if the decision is made to try to rationalize the decision and re-appropriate the surplus into the system; such a re-appropriation is inherently unstable, since there is no logical reason why we should continue to use our surplus in this manner. Think of the reinvestment of profit in the expansion of a capitalist enterprise, or the use of time away from work to get trained in ways that will make you a more effective worker. One need not do this in any sort of classically objective or transcendental sense, which partially explains why we keep admonishing ourselves to do it -- as though we would be betraying some kind of universal principle by being unproductive.

[Classical political economists grasped this point very well; Smith had to introduce a moral duty to spend wisely in order to keep the market system functioning, and Weber noted that the "Protestant ethic" fulfilled this function in many settings. Polanyi understood well the role played by the quasi-naturalistic narratives of Townsend's "goats and dogs" and Mandaville's "fable of the bees" in aiding this effective closure of the system. And Marx understood that ideological consciousness could do something very similar, and keep the system on track by continually pressing the surplus back into rational circulation. From the perspective of the restricted economy of a closed system, the greatest sin is waste and excess; surpluses have to be re-incorporated, lest they undermine the whole process by exposing it for a giant tautology.]

Here's the rub: agency is surplus. Action is never exhausted by the rational rules of a situation; even a decision to reinvest stems from surplus, from a capacity to act that is never fully captured by any set of rules and procedures. [Wittgenstein knew this well, which is why he distinguished between a language-game and the form of life within which it was embedded; social relations are never fully logical, since inference is a social activity rather than a purely logical one.] So in this sense there can be no rules for action that have anything like a transcendental status, as the moment of action itself always escapes the system and stands outside of it. Agency is contingency. And the exercise of agency means embracing this contingency and this surplus, irrational character.

Why does this relate to what I was on about yesterday? Because the academy, as I understand it, is a surplus institution. Think about the immense social wealth and privilege associated with the creation of organizations devoted to thinking about things: this is only possible if one's society is already rich enough to handle basic necessities for most people, or if the organizations in question are supported by resource infusions from outside of the immediate social environment. Otherwise, how would such a thing be supported? Everyone would be too busy with the daily business of living to step back and reflect on things (or if they did, they would do so in an exclusively religious context; Nietzsche's observation that the ascetic priest was the cocoon in which the scholar developed seems entirely appropriate here). So the university, the academy, is social surplus. And I would argue that it -- and the academics who are called to live and work within it -- should embrace this status, and not continually strive to shed it or submerge it in other functional imperatives.

My opposition to "politically engaged scholarship," by which I mean scholarship that strives to push a particular partisan agenda in a present political context, is in this sense eminently similar to my opposition to and genuine fear of the creeping "culture of assessment" that seems to be colonizing higher education the way that has pretty effectively colonized primary and secondary education in the United States. Both imperatives reduce the academy, the university, to a functional tool for keeping the system running. Assessment forces people to evaluate their time at the university in terms of the practical skills that they have acquired; politicized scholarship forces people to evaluate thinking and pedagogy in terms of its contribution to some reform agenda. Both keep the Empire running, since the Empire in this sense is the general reduction of everything to means-ends rationality and calculations of efficiency -- the deliberate forgetting of the surplus character of surplus and the denial of agency-as-contingency. The result: the completion of the Enlightenment project of getting oneself out of the way in favor of one or another Absolute Truth that justifies one's actions.

[And, parenthetically - this is of course the necessary surplus that makes my argument issue from me, even though it is not reducible to anything within the logical structure of the argument itself -- this also eliminates the notion of faith from action. If I know, I need not have faith, I need not go beyond the comfortable bounds of reason. I need not risk anything, and if I am not risking anything I cannot participate in connexion.]

So what is one to do with the Empire, which in my usage at the moment largely represents the habit of action ( = behavior + meaningful interpretation thereof) that mandates that everything be subordinated to the logic of efficiency? I am not convinced that it makes much sense to either ignore it and go on one's merry way, or to simply stand there being inefficient and wait for it to run you down (which is what usually happens: people are martyred for such things all the time, and our present system is mercilessly good at doing so in any number of ways). Evil -- and I do think that this stuff is evil in the precise and technical sense (both because of its humanistic hubris that forgets or tries to eliminate the divine, and because the world that it envisions is one in which the most logical course of action is to stab one's intimate friends in the back at the moment of greatest personal advantage) -- needs to be resisted. And resisting evil means, ironically, using the very means of strategic calculation that the Empire pushes, but using them to do something very different: using them to create spaces in which the logic of efficiency is (efficiently) denied entry.

It's the paradox of the "intentional community," wherein a group of people undertake to deliberately create a space for openness, even though the effort to do so is very calculated and efficient. Like the Amish, who put a lot of forethought into their communal decisions about the use of technology and the like. Only this kind of deliberate exercise of power can hope to stand a chance against the Empire.

I think about it very much like the conclusion of Return of the Jedi -- no, not the bit with the Ewoks. Luke is fighting Vader in the Emperor's throne room on the Death Star; he manages to fight him to a standstill by using the same techniques of (s)wordplay that Vader is using. But he is hesitant, because he doesn't want to succumb to the Dark Side, so he stays content with a stalemate. Until Vader threatens the people whom he loves…and then bang, Luke comes out swinging and actually defeats Vader in combat (standing there with one's (s)word(s) and the neck of the opponent looks like victory in combat to me). And then the Emperor invites Luke to use that surplus and complete the system of the Empire, to kill Vader and take Vader's place, thus completely crushing the rebellion and ensuring that the Dark Side will be forever triumphant -- and Luke does something completely irrational, throws away his (s)word(s) and makes an identity-claim: "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." And then the miracle happens: the universe (or the scriptwriter :-) conspires to bring about a better end, as Vader destroys the Emperor, and the Empire falls.

The point? Luke at that moment acts in faith, not reason. He has escaped the system, escaped the parallel agendas (Ben and Yoda want him to defeat the Emperor, presumably by killing Vader; the Emperor wants him to join the Empire and complete it), and moved into a irrational realm where he ends up doing something very much like the farmer in one of my favorite, and often overlooked, biblical passages: "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seen on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come" (Mark 4: 26-29). This is the great ambiguity here: we do what we can, we use our skills and (s)word(s), and then we stop and wait. Vader would simply have killed Luke had he stood there defenseless earlier on; he needed to defeat Vader with his (s)wordplay first. But Luke stopped there, which is the other important point: having created space, he did not rush to fill it. He simply let it be: fallow, irrational, unproductive.

I am tired of being useful all the time. I am tired of being told that I should be useful as an academic. I want to be useless; I want to have and protect space for being useless. Undergrads need to spend more time being useless and want to help to create space for that. Graduate students need to be trained in the art of efficiently producing inefficiency and usefully generating space for uselessness; there's the great and glorious performative contradiction in which I strive to live as a mentor to graduate students (the Obi-Wan Kenobi role). And colleagues need to be beaten about the head if they persist in subordinating the academy to the agendas of the Empire, whether those are technical-efficient or partisan-political. This is, I believe, how one creates space for openness -- which remains my central project and agenda as an academic.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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