The Future of an Institution

I want to start with a story in Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael (which I recommend to anyone interested in activism). In said story one of the protagonists tells of a work of fiction he wrote for a philosophy class. In this work of fiction he depicts a universe where Hitler won World War II. In this world, history has been rewritten by the Nazis – the history texts look nothing like they do in our universe, and there is no mention of atrocities or socialism or the US, and so on and so on (the exact details of this passage may be sketchy to me, but this matters little for my point).  The story (the story of a story nestled inside a story – chew on that Derridians!) ends with someone explaining that they feel something in the state-given account of history is wrong, but that can’t put their finger on the pulse. What they feel is a missing side of the story, what might be referred to as a suppressed discourse.

Let’s teleport out of the realm of Quinn’s Ishmael to a more concrete reality. There’s about 250 students in this year’s Introduction to Politics course (POLS1002). Fresh, young, and a mixture of impressionable and stupid (as we all are), they face the front of MCCT2 on Tuesday afternoon, bearing their gaze down upon the gesturing lecturer at the front of the class. There stands Dr. Andrew Banfield, convenor of the political science major, who gesticulates his vision of politics to the class. He teaches in an empirical and pragmatic style; his research investigates politics as it is. Dr. Banfield lecturing the Intro to Politics course can be seen as representing a turn in what is taught in the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR) at ANU. In a way intentional or not (hooray hermeneutics!) Dr. Banfield is, for the first years taught by his class, the new face of political research at ANU, a face that is quickly turning its gaze away from political philosophy and Marxism to focus on empiricism and politics as it is.

Hence why the loss of several course in the more esoteric and qualitative side of political science should raise concern amongst the student body. Sure, ANU lost several prominent academics who specialised in the more esoteric side of politics, but there are alternative ways to interpret this event; an academic leaving an institution possibly signals that said institution has been turning, at the very least, indifferent towards their research for a while. So farewell to the courses on the Frankfurt School, revolutions, and Marxism. Hello to quantitative methods and electioneering 101.

Quantitative methods are fine, but here’s the crux of the problem: if we remove classes that open up entire avenues of thinking about politics and the political, we are engaging in what Foucault means when he talks about “power”. For Foucault, or a certain Deleuzian reading of him,power can consist of the marginalisation of discourses – if you’re not even aware of what isn’t allowed to be spoken of, you have no ability to speak of it. This utter marginalisation is an extreme case, but it is disappointing that the ANU still thinks its rhetoric on education is going to have punch as a good portion of the conversation slowly sinks into the abyss. And the terrifying thing is that it doesn’t require an antagonistic attitude towards these courses for them to disappear; mere ambivalence will do. Presumably it takes effort to reinstate courses, to find new people to teach them or get a staff member to learn a new topic. All this soaks up materials and resources in an environment where the administration seems increasingly focused on efficiency and cost. Too much effort to lift a finger to salvage a course, and down goes that(dis)course; perhaps not straight to the bottom of the ocean,but towards the bottom nonetheless.

The question arises of whether we should include everything in the conversation. Surely we don’t need to teach “wrong” things – that would just waste everyone’s time. But are these courses and ideas that are being phased out obviously and even demonstrably wrong? In the cases where they are, does that mean they have no value? In physics, what is “wrong” physics is taught because most of it is still a good approximation (see Newtonian mechanics versus relativity), that is,it is still useful. However in the social sciences, to which politics belongs, proving that a given approach or theory is useless is difficult, if not impossible. Marxism is not without flaws, but it is a serious component of both the history of political theory and current discussions in political philosophy.

If our esteemed, Go8-member ANU, with, as of late 2012, realisable investment assets of over a billion dollars, starts excluding, through means practical or ideological, approaches to any given subject, we should be wary. Our education will becomes less about thinking and will assume its role as what Louis Althusser would refer to as an Ideological State Apparatus – it becomes about conditioning, not learning, and if our courses and departments assume this role it will becomes a meaningless gesture to call ANU a university instead of a glorified TAFE. In response to critics who stress practicality in courses I ask who defines practicality, and under what conditions does it operate? Are those conditions fixed? After all, pragmatism itself is a theory, and contains assumptions ultimately theoretical (based on ideals of what reality is and how it functions). For the final word on pragmatism and theory, the famous quip by Sidney Morgenbesser shall suffice. Pragmatism: “It sounds good in theory, but it’ll never work in practice.”