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The new dark ages

Anna Boswell

A checklist
  • Systems of reward driven by the imperative to generate commodifiable research in accordance with the dictum ‘publish or perish’
  • Individual and institutional stature-seeking and grandstanding based on productivity and performance indicators such as peer-reviewed publication outputs
  • Ever-increasing levels of disciplinary specialisation permitting ever- increasing numbers of academics to pose as innovators and so reap the symbolic benefits of ‘original’ discovery
  • Subjugation of teaching to research activities whose focus is determined by market forces, budgetary constraints and probable return on investment
  • The rise of modes of governance fostering conformity, calculability and competitiveness through systematising, standard setting, reporting, auditing, benchmarking and league tabling

As William Clark’s Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (2006) makes strikingly clear, leading aspects of the managerial capitalism that defines the current culture of the research university were set in place in German-speaking lands during the eighteenth century.

Back to the future

Clark offers an ethno-historical perspective on the birth of our institutional environment deeper than the one customarily invoked. His study makes plain that the research university is considerably older than the ‘rough’ hundred years recently proposed by Ronald Barnett.1 It also makes plain that the entrepreneurial and bureaucratic universities of Barnett’s historical schema are not later developmental stages marking the evolution of the research university, but rather that these models are synchronous and entwined. Our current working environment doesn’t just have its origins in the 1980s US, or in late twentieth and early twenty-first century iterations of neoliberalism more generally, and while the so-called global financial crisis may have supplied (and may continue to supply) a rationale and pretext for further and accelerated changes, the lesson offered by Clark is that these patterns of institutional development can be traced back over centuries. The contemporary ‘redefining’ of the purpose of the university, it turns out, is both prefigured and markedly consistent with earlier definitions.

This immediately begs questions of surprise, not least because we’ve generally understood academic culture to possess a long and distinguished history of relative autonomy. Many of us have clung—perhaps credulously, in the face of compelling indications to the contrary—to the belief that university industry and enterprise haven’t solely and literally always been about ‘industry’ and ‘enterprise’, and that our work in such places is in some ways to do with teaching and social good. Our condition of not-knowing also likely stems from unexamined faith in the modern university as a university of writing, and from unexamined faith in writing itself as a modernising and illuminatory technology—as the source of our salvation from the dark ages. Writing gives us to understand that we live in an age of documentation, recorded information, ‘knowledge’. Tied to ideas of legibility and visibility, and used to produce and implement systems of rational order, it offers a radiance which may, as much as anything, be an effect of the bright ground of the page across which neatly-inked characters march in disciplined rows. Making things historicisable—indeed, making possible historical consciousness itself2—, writing has come to be revered as the highest form of academic labour.

Clark’s study points towards the extent to which research (and thus writing) activities conducted within the university have been and continue to be programmatically scripted (as a matter of functioning)3 and market- oriented (as matters of PR and commerce). For several reviewers of this book, realisation of the darkness of this history has been experienced as a shock of recognition. Conspiracy-theorising, however, seems unlikely to be the most helpful response. It isn’t necessarily a matter of having been manipulated or ‘deceived’, as one commentator would have it, into ever more vigorous pursuit of the larger technological and bureaucratic aims of our universities—and, by extension, our modern states—in competition with other universities and other states.4 It may simply be that we’ve been so busy being in something we can’t really remember why we’re there or how we came to be there. Memory itself is technologically mediated (through writing itself, as well as through sites, events, images and objects of other kinds), and it is tenuous at best.5 We sometimes speak of ‘institutional memory’ as if this were memory of a different order, but because memory works in and through things, it is institutional by nature (and subject to institutional pressures of different kinds), and it’s also constitutional or constitutive—which is to say it constitutes who we take ourselves to be.

The fact that recent changes within the university are precedented also begs questions of progress. Reaching back to the twelfth century, to the outgrowth from ecclesiastical institutions of what would become the first western universities, Clark’s book charts the programmes of reform through which writing came to serve as the essential site and practice of the university. Progress is, of course, a deeply-embedded capitalist idea and its lexicon— which reflects its onward-and-upward ethos of continuous and graphable improvement—has underwritten the design-drives of official university culture for centuries. Clark does not address this directly, although in practice the sweep of his story is counteracted by tremors and convulsions that show patterns of institutional development being articulated and disarticulated
by turns. And when we read, for example, that medieval academia ‘revolved around orthodoxy’, it appears that some things have not moved very far.6 Secularisation of universities may have transpired over time but adherence to doctrinal norms is pretty much still expected, or is perhaps expected anew—as is indicated by the relative conservatism of contemporary research funding- and academic publishing- organs which discourage radical oddness and isolated idiosyncrasy. Working against the linear logics that it invokes, in other words, Clark’s study suggests alternative ways of diagramming the university’s lived course—through parabolic or orbital trajectories, or through cellular mutation, or through accretion and sedimentation.

Asking after

Clark also usefully corrects the widely-held notion that originality relates to novelty and to the creative wellsprings of individual genius. Originally, he reminds us, ‘originality’ referred to stemming-from-the-origin, and his underscoring of this term (and of what ‘counts’ as original research) points up contradictions at play in our evolving environments. Research has always been expected to provide a basis for further research and to relate to existing work in a complementary manner. It is supposed to operate in a paradigm of ‘anticipatory posterity’, knowing itself as the (constitutive, institutionalised) future-memory of its own event or epoch, and it’s supposed to be catalogued and inter-referenced, rather than serving as a singular or solitary display. Such reflections on conditions of ‘originality’ begin to make sense of an industry in which papers submitted to journals are increasingly subject to scanning through plagiarism detection software, and yet in which such papers—along with research grant applications and 250-word conference abstracts and all else—must show direct evidence of networked forms of knowledge. Citational overdrive, stimulated in ever more urgent ways through ‘academic integrity’ campaigns, makes ventriloquism and assimilation legitimate and commonplace practices, and whole careers are now staked on derivation—on piggybacking on the work of others.

Clark also points towards the paradox that while academics and their institutions acquire ‘charisma’ through the publicity generated by research, much of what is published is emphatically not ‘charismatic’, and that a ‘knowledge economy’ really might mean exactly that: knowledge operating in isolation from ideas and in the service of Big Business and/or of institutional and professional ladder-climbing (grant-mongering, book-contract-procuring). As is made clear by the present tide of conference proceedings, journals, edited volumes and monographs surging to fill all available space—on bookshelves, in libraries, on hard drives, in cyberspace, in recycling bins both virtual and real—, the routinised, treadmilled research being funded and churned out under ever-intensifying PBRF and equivalent pressures isn’t necessarily making things ‘clearer’ or ‘deeper’, or shifting conceptual frontiers in any particular direction or manner. Indeed, the principal purpose of an idea seems to be that it can be transmitted to paper which bears an ISBN number, and it’s hard to see that anyone could have time for new ideas when we’re all so busy being busy and accounting for our time and augmenting our CVs and working to secure funding for the production of more ‘knowledge’. In our increasingly pre-formatted working worlds, we don’t actually need to generate new ideas, and we certainly aren’t encouraged to reflect on what ideas themselves might be (the idea-of-an-idea). We’re just required to average the thinking that’s already been done, and to insert these averaged ideas into standardised receptacles (marketing pitches, grant applications, abstracts, essays, articles, reviews, books, PowerPoint presentations). Our research practices and our writing are so thoroughly habituated and automated that we barely register the kind of template we’re filling out in each case.

It would be nice—and comforting—to imagine these matters are no big deal. Clark himself shows that they certainly aren’t new. Since early modern times, university-based research has been largely ‘serial’ and ‘technical’, a matter of ‘proving diligence’:7 a publication dating from 1702 bears the title ‘On the Reasons Why Not Few Scholars Bring Nothing To Light’; there was a particular fad for dissertations in the piggy-backing mode between the 1670s and 1730s. Among other things, however, this history raises urgent questions concerning the social benefit or social impact of research. Applicants are increasingly required to address (and profess) such benefits and impacts in constructing research proposals and submissions. Outcomes, in other words, must be known and anatomised in advance of the inquiry, as a precondition for ‘selling’ the inquiry itself. As this suggests, research is becoming ever more strongly conceptualised as a form of problem-solving rather than problematising and it involves rote gestures and predictability: it’s supposed to be targeted to meet the needs of funders or of other identified external parties, and it’s duty-bound to yield quantifiable results (preferably licensable as intellectual property through the commercial research and ‘knowledge transfer’ companies run by universities themselves and/or by other financial stakeholders). According to this model, research serves as a business analysis tool for society, cauterising ‘unprofitable’ loops rather than encouraging these to be expanded. In practice, it readily comes to serve as a means of marketing the university to a wider public, and of marketing to this public ideas of what the public itself should be and do and value—although the fact that our local PBRF engine privileges publication in offshore venues further short-changes a local audience, since it means that issues of critical import are frequently fielded in distant or inaccessible places.

Clark’s book also obliges us to consider the implications of our research culture in pedagogic terms. Research has left teaching far in its dust in terms of prestige value and institutional and financial support. At the same time as they deploy teaching-derived income streams to cross-subsidise the research activities upon which the ‘excellence’ of their reputations will be calculated, universities are widening the gulf between research and pedagogy through two-tier academic employment contracts. The very structures of the buildings we inhabit are coming to enshrine this ever more hierarchised system: teaching bunkers below, research cages fitted with hamster wheels above. In these circumstances, it isn’t simply a matter of insisting that teaching ought to be research-led. Research, Clark reminds us, originated in the postgraduate classroom in the eighteenth century, arising as a new method of instruction which would simultaneously train graduates to produce capital for floating on the academic market, fashion their academic selves (as Romantic authors, heroes of knowledge), and mark their passage into a new and competitive world of professionalised labour. In other words, research should be properly teaching-led and pedagogically-informed because it is pedagogy, performed in a certain kind of way, and because pedagogical methods count—such methods condition a future workforce of researchers.

To do?

It’s hard not to feel despondent—and deeply cynical—that one of the parts of the university perhaps best-equipped to ‘think’ about the implications of this current institutional environment is the part most at risk. Clark shows that despite the early modern development of the arts as a means of combatting ‘scholastic barbarism’,8 this faculty has long battled its own vulnerability. The arts (initially comprising philosophy, arts and sciences) consistently tracks as the last-and-least in the ranked order of faculties, trailing behind theology, jurisprudence and medicine—although the hard sciences circumvented this fate once it became clear how well-suited they are to producing demonstrable applied benefits (partnerships, patentability, saleable results). The shuffling of the order has seen the rise of STEM subjects and the fall of theology into the arts, but the arts itself—in its residual forms of the humanities and social sciences—remains quagmired at the bottom, struggling to prove its worth (or to earn its keep) through research. The irony of this fate is that the origin of the modern notion of research can be pinpointed to German doctoral dissertations for subjects in the arts. As Clark explains, the Doctor of Philosophy degree first emerged as an attempt by lowly Masters of Arts to achieve parity with academic doctors in the three so-called ‘superior’ faculties.

For these reasons, it seems incumbent on those of us who are trying to subsist in this particular area to seek to suspend or disturb or dislocate this unfolding history. Here, then, an alternative checklist, which might be titled Possible Ways To Commit Heresy in the Modern Research University:

  1. Insist on the ‘value’ of the arts. If the university is to assist in bringing about social futures impelled by something other than transactional determinacy, and if research is to find and say things that haven’t already been said (or to say things afresh) rather than confining itself to latter- day scholastic barbarism, trust needs to be placed in the faculty that is most sharply characterised by and devoted to creative and critical activities. One form of learning offered by the arts is that a university isn’t hermetically sealed from ‘the public’, as institutional perception frequently has it. Rather, a university enacts and calls into being an idea of society, and its borders are permeable—its people are members of publics of all kinds. Another lesson offered by this faculty is that the conditions for genuinely ‘creative’ endeavour require openness to risk, idiosyncrasy, oddness and provisionality, to abstraction, to unplanned and unplannable outcomes—to waywardness and failure, even.
  2. Make proper commitments to teaching, ensuring that the university itself functions as an object of pedagogy and of research. We owe it to our students to cultivate research networks for their ‘benefit’ that serve as more than reductive ‘entrepreneurial ecosystems’ in which budding businesspeople are encouraged to create start-up companies—in competition with one another, naturally. Future graduates (all of whom are citizens of society, and some of whom are future researchers) should be supported in working with one another and with others. They should ‘learn’ what disciplines are, and why and how these have evolved; they should ‘know’ what research is, and why we do it, and under what circumstances; they should be critically conscious of the ‘selves’ and social worlds they fashion or unfashion through their work; they should be able to think and repurpose the box, or the checklist of aims and goals and outcomes, rather than simply filling or fulfilling it.9 More generally, we need to reframe learning, teaching and research as activities that are not subject to strangleholds of professionalisation and institutionalisation—which is to say that we need to rethink established assumptions about who or what an ‘expert’ may be, and to materialise and recognise classrooms-beyond-the-classroom. And pedagogy and research themselves need to appear in the work of academics and students alike, informing our activities and moving these on in ways that bind (and thus make them accountable) to their own entangled origin.
  3. Develop research practices on our own terms, in ways that aren’t strictly subject to programming intents. This may take the form of getting better at appearing to do what we’re programmed to do, while doing other things besides—like insisting in our research on the value of the classroom interface; pursuing projects athwart or beyond the margins of what ‘counts’; resisting the disciplining power of disciplines; turning networked knowledge back on itself. We also need to reflect hard on what we remember with, and to understand ‘anticipatory posterity’ as a matter of both survival and staged disappearance. This might permit refusal or reformulation of the publish-or-perish snare, and it isn’t simply a question of scattering written fragments like white breadcrumbs in the (Romantic, heroic) hope of lighting the way—for ourselves, for others, for the future. It’s more an operative sense that our work might congeal something, ‘blot’-like. A blot might be thought of as representing a meeting place composed of the tracks that have made it,10 and it works against neatness and rational order and recoverability. It’s un-aesthetic, a sign of blemish or surfeit—a means of drawing upon and pushing against the ‘writerliness’ of writing, the ‘templateness’ of templates, the ‘programmatic’ nature of the programmes that run us. If we understand our research activities as holding disruptive (staining, impairing) potential, we might become more aware of how we leave (or fail to leave) the imprints of our own attempts to know where we are and what we’re doing as we go.