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Social auto-totality: the Lecturer’s predicament

Marek Tesar (with illustrations by Alena Kavka)

How can we ‘Live within the Truth’ within neoliberal academia? In this short paper I will depict the Havelian notion of a post-totalitarian citizen and re-shape and apply it in a story that focuses on a Lecturer in the New Zealand tertiary sector.
The Story of the Lecturer

This story tells a tale of the ordinary, everyday life/work experience of a Lecturer, who coordinates an educational course, and who, in a Havelian sense, questions his ‘irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals’.1 The Lecturer publicly behaves as is expected of him; he does not do anything extraordinary, and carries out his work expecting that the University system will take no notice of him. He participates in the public domain, attends all required meetings, sends the right emails to the right people, and uses ideologically correct and sensitive language. He does all of this to remain untouchable by the University. He knows and understands that it is only a game, and he accepts its rules and plays his part well.
One day, the Lecturer receives an email from the Head of a School. The email comes with a very simple request: to print out and place on his office door the statement ‘PBRF is essential to our University, and it is important that we hire professors to score highly’. The email does not say anything surprising or new; this information, this same request, has been expressed in previous years. The Lecturer knows it well, as he sees the same statements on the doors of his colleagues. So the Lecturer prints out the sign about PBRF and pins it on his door.


Havel is concerned with the reasons why the Lecturer does that. The Lecturer has always done so, because he is aware of the consequences of not displaying it; he could be ‘punished’ and be considered a disturbance, or he could be considered a threat to the University system. He could also be labeled a traitor and be accused of disloyalty, to the goals and to the mission statement of its School. He could be accused of not being a team player. So if the Lecturer wants to live life as he has lived it in the past years, he needs to display this sign. The sign means that he officially, publicly declares that he has accepted his role in the University, and that he is ready to live in harmony with it and its structures. Rewriting Havel, this is the message that the Lecturer conveys as he displays the sign: ‘I, the [Lecturer] XY, work here, and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace’.2


When the Lecturer displays the sign, he acts as if he accepts the meaning of the slogan ‘we need to score highly in PBRF and therefore we will hire Professors’ itself. In a Havelian sense, the meaning of his actions lies not in the slogan but in the performative aspect of responding to the request and placing the sign on his door. This act carries a different message to the semantics of the sign itself. As the Lecturer displays the sign, the message conveyed to all staff members and students walking past his office is: ‘I am just like you, I play my part in the system, I displayed the sign on my door just as all of you have done your little parts. You cannot badmouth me, you cannot tell on me, and informers have nothing on me. I am supporting the University, and my public record is clean. My managers know that I have fulfilled my part and that I have obeyed the order’.

Following Havel, if the sign that the Lecturer was asked to display stated: ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestionably obedient’,3 the Lecturer would most likely be embarrassed by it, and he would care about what the sign says. The semantics of the slogan would immediately become essential to the story, as it would produce a response and personal feelings in the Lecturer. He would probably feel undignified, he would be wary of anyone looking at him, and measuring him against this sign. However, the semantics of the slogan that he was actually asked to display allow him to think to himself: ‘there is nothing bad, unusual or wrong with reminding yourself that the University needs to score high in PBRF and to adjust its hiring strategies to meet this aim’.


Why does the Lecturer need to display the sign and therefore publicly support the University? Why does he need to be loyal to the University in such a visible way that all others can observe it? The Lecturer is already active in various semi-public domains, as he may have volunteered to take on extra workload to support the University operations, and may have participated in University committees. The Lecturer has always done all that was expected of him, he has obeyed and he has been a loyal staff member, and no-one could question his devotion to the University. So the concern that Havel raises is: why does the Lecturer feel that he has to place the sign on his door?

The fellow staff members may not notice or even ignore the sign if it is displayed, as these signs are on every door. What becomes the concern is when the sign becomes suddenly invisible— Lecturers who walk by his door may ask themselves: what is absent here, rather then what is present. By not displaying the sign, the Lecturer could demonstrate an act of resistance to the hegemonic discourse by not acting, and therefore not conforming to the demands of the University.


Lecturers living within a lie form what can be paraphrased from Havel as the ‘panorama of everyday [academic] life’.4 The concept of a panorama paints a picture within which the Lecturer’s sign is just one small component, without which, the full picture would be incomplete. If the sign about PBRF was missing from his door, it would draw attention. So the predicament that the Lecturer faces at the University is not whether someone would notice or not notice the displayed sign, but that by the act of not displaying it, the Lecturer would become an anomaly within the University. The University needs this panorama to be solid and compact for the staff, as it indicates to the Lecturer how other Lecturers behave, and therefore how he should behave. If Lecturers did not exhibit their public approval with the system, they would be ‘excluded, fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security’,5 no matter how fake and artificial these options may be.


The staff that walk by the Lecturer’s door have hung these signs too. All staff display these slogans as a sign of their agreement with the panorama of everyday University life. Lecturers are well adapted to the conditions that they live in; they know how they must behave; and they create the public sphere of the University, which in return shapes them. As Havel notes, ‘they do what is done, what is to be done, what must be done but at the same time—by that very token—they confirm that it must be done in fact’.6 As with the Lecturer, the other staff are indifferent to each other about the act of displaying the signs, but at the same time they compel each other to hang them, they are mutually dependent, and they support each other in their obedience. Lectures are supervised and controlled, but at the same time they are the controllers and supervisors of each other. And, as Havel argues, ‘they are both victims of the system and its instruments’.7

When the Lecturer obeys the request for displaying the sign, as he has done in the years before, and when other Lecturers do too, the whole campus is flooded with signs. It conveys an important message from one campus to another: ‘Look, we have done our job, all the signs are in place. Now you need to make sure that all signs are in place in your campus.’ This produces what Havel refers to as the ‘social auto-totality’.8 The social auto- totality means that every Lecturer is drawn into the sphere of power. Havel notes a change in human beings, as they may now ‘surrender their human identity in favour of the identity of [the University]’. In other words, changes in subjectivity can lead individuals to become part of the ‘automatism and [to become] servants of its self- determined goals, so they may participate in the common responsibility for it’,9 which would ultimately put pressure on their fellow academics. This shapes the subjectivities of those who are comfortable with their positions and their capacity for public involvement, and for feeling uncomfortable with those who opt not to participate. By making all academics participate, the University then produces everyone as instruments of a mutual totality, or the auto-totality of society.