Respondant Comments on UC-Davis symposium on “Academic Brands: Globalizing, Privatizing, and Quantifying the University.” March 22-23 2019.


This has been a wonderful conference, and I have learned a lot.  I found myself fascinated by many of the arguments that have been presented and really with few criticisms to make.  I am not sure there is a matter of agreement or disagreement here, everybody has presented things as they see them from their position and experience.  And for me in this brief response it cannot be a matter of asking questions from the paper presenters either.  I do have one question for whoever wants to pick it up: why did the state decide to de-fund public education institutions, did they have real or merely political, phony reasons to do so, and can that trend be reversed, and what would it take?

Other than that, I will try to make a general comment–on the somber side, I suppose, because I am actually very worried about the future of the university.  And I can assure you there was no one more committed to institutional development, no one who loved the university more than I did in earlier years.  No more–it is a fact.  But I will not say I am sorry about my own change of position.  I think looking at things as they are is still where the peculiar satisfaction academics can aspire to lies.  One can of course be mistaken–you can judge that.

It is one thing to try to present yourself, as an academic institution, in the best possible light in order to attract students.  I think institutions have a clear right to do that, and I certainly have no objections.  But I really do not think that is what we have come to call branding.  Of course fund raising is a legitimate activity, and so is merchandising, I have no particular objections to business in general, but I think branding, to the extent that it promotes the quality of a product by identifying it with a particular name, is about fake news, it is about fooling the potential constituency, it is about planting ideological mystification, and it is, finally, what I would call a practice of straight cold-blooded sentimentality meant to sell a product as a product, whatever it takes and regardless of what the customer needs.  The problem is that branding really has little to do with truth, or nothing to do with truth.  Truth is only at best instrumentalized at the service of branding, never the other way around.  Yes, you can tell me that branding is not a lie, since no reasonable person would ever believe its claims–it is a theoretical fiction, like all advertising.   But let us try to see through what this means when it is applied to the university.  Although Mario has already given us a clear example.

Branding has to do with products; education, like existential experience in general, is not and cannot ever be a product.  When you attempt to brand an intangible you first have to destroy the intangible as intangible and turn it into a commodity.  Branding the university–of course the university can sell t-shirts and props of all kinds, I do not care, and that is not what we are really talking about–branding the university as such is literally branding the students with a hot iron, turning them into submissive and subservient subjects, which they do accept for a reason of course, and it is a mercenary one, as they think it gives them symbolic compensation, symbolic power.  They do not realize what is stolen from them is much more valuable than the miserable gift that comes to them in the form of a fallen fetish, an opaque glimmer, an ultimately shameful distinction having to do with claiming superiority.  Let me offer a thesis, see if you have a problem or many problems with it:  branding the university–associating education with the consumption of a product that fills your gut with symbolic exchange value– is a direct attack on whatever in life exceeds calculability, whatever in life exceeds labor time; it is in fact an attempt to turn free expenditure into labor time; it is an attempt to commodify and instrumentalize what should be impersonal and holy for every human life.  Of course nobody has to fall for it (although most people do)–the system does not need for everybody to fall for it.  Just for the system generally to work in that direction.  As usual.

The university has been understood since the Enlightenment as a shelter against general equivalence, a shelter from (if not necessarily against) the commodification of the time of existence as living labor.  If the modern university is consistent with the rise of capitalism, it was also taken from the beginning to be an exception to capitalism, in fact a compensation for capitalism, a place protected from its ravages in the name of freedom.  It was, explicitly since the founding of the Humboldt University in Berlin in 1816, ideally a place for the free use of time in favor of non-instrumental activities, a place of Bildung, opposite to the biopolitical instrumentalization of the time of labor as commodified time, fetishized time, the time of reification, reified time.  There has always been, in modernity, a deep connection between university–the principle of the university, university reason, the time of the university–and freedom.  We can sum it up by saying that the time of the university has never been the time of labor.

Today all of that is under attack as we know very well.  We are in the middle of an epochal change, and of course the danger is that it will become irreversible.  The present generation of academics is witnessing the abandonment of the modern university in favor of a new organism, at this point still hybrid, that seeks to organize itself on the basis of what I will call the principle of general equivalence, which is based, already in the Karl Marx of the Grundrisse, on what he called the Gemeinwesen, the common substance, money.  We are witnessing the taylor-fordization of the university, the transformation of the time of knowledge into labor time, a radical biopolitization of the university, which of course hinges on the biopolitization of its denizens, students, faculty, administrators, alumni.  University life is today biopolitical life, a life increasingly under the claim of biopolitical rule.  General equivalence of course also means general hierarchization, general placement into the place where you belong: you have some chips, you have more chips if you are a UCLA graduate than if you are a Cal State Fresno graduate, more chips if you are a dentist than if you are a plummer, branding gives you some of the chips, but everything is about chips, you cash them, see where that puts you, you live your life.  You try not to run out of chips. If you do, where would you go?

The principle of general equivalence is also the principle of general calculability.  Life must be reduced to calculation, life must be calculated, and whatever in life remains outside the possibility of calculation is merely either disposable life or, more likely, life that has not yet come under the principle of general, which means total, calculation.

Let me suggest, then, that branding is an effort, one among others, branding is only part of a strategy, not its totality, to maximize calculability outcomes.  It is a partial strategy of capture that must be understood contextually.  It is part of a monumental, massive or gigantic endeavor or enterprise of submission, hence of domination, that we call biopolitical social engineering.  The goal of branding, consistent with the goal of biopolitical engineering, is totalitarian closure into an exhaustive, and exhausting, network of hierarchies that will dictate the conditions of existence for everyone in the future.  Think of it, to use Celia’s words, as a gigantic conversion of the time of existence into Customer Relationship Management.

In the light of what we have heard over the last couple of days, the question for us is, how do we inhabit the university today?  You may tell me it is a Romantic question–as if we had a choice.  But we do have a choice.  Please bear with me and consider the possibility–that I will not have the time to explain–that the corporatization of the university we have all heard so much about over the last two days is part and parcel of a generalized state-form that we could call a state of extraction–we are information, our information is exchange value, and our information needs to be extracted at the service of the production of surplus value and in the name of the principle of general equivalence.  Branding, trademark bullying, faking coauthors, negotiating cognitive dissonances–they are all forms of extraction for the production of money, which is the overall goal, and in fact the only goal (I will not mince words here–I think old university goals as represented by the Humboldt University are gone, are history, and that today’s university in the United States and in a few other countries such as the UK is interested only in money, in the general equivalent, to which all members of the institution must submit.)

Resisting the state of extraction–for instance, as embodied in the contemporary university–is to step back, from the university, against the university. Ex universitate salus. This is just an example. I am not claiming you should not cash the check you get at the end of the month or that you should not teach your students. You should do both things–as needed. But there are political and infrapolitical ways of living in the university, of living the university, just like there are political and infrapolitical ways of existing. Politics is overrated, I think, particularly for us, here and now. It has become another form of chatter, in a deep way. Infrapolitics may prepare a new political avatar–but of that, at this point, we are not prepared to talk. I am not prepared to talk.

I think my claim–try not to be an informant, try not to let them abuse you, try to resist the state of extraction, practice living in the secret, do not let yourself be coopted–means to prepare an existential clearing.  In the name of survival.  Infrapolitical survival is premised on a step back from the state of extraction, which is also, today, a step back from politics as chatter, from social-network politics, from institutional politics, from hegemony politics, from the farce all of it has become for the most part.  We could also appeal to the more hard-nosed Marxist positions of Fredric Jameson, when he claims that politics is really of little import, since political economy determines everything, not the will of the people, much less the will of bourgeois intellectuals.  In a situation like the one he describes, and I think he is more right for today than for any other time in history, infrapolitics is all we can (and should) focus on.

The comment I wanted to add has to do with an article I read a couple of weeks ago in El Confidencial, actually an interview with Israeli cybersecurity expert Nimrod Kozlovski.  It is an interesting and frightening interview, both, telling everybody what experts already know, which is, how corporate practices are moving in the direction of a complete colonization of life, of existence, of which Academic branding is very obviously part and parcel, and in it some unnamed Yale professor is quoted as telling Kozlovski something like “you could get a doctorate critiquing things and speaking for privacy, against data mining, against corporate and technological intrusion in your deepest dreams, and all that shit.  But you could also get on with the program, and you should, because it will be better for you.”  The whole point has now become to embrace all kinds of corporate transgressions, we need to love the university not in spite of what it now does, but because it does it, and we need to accept that we all have a more or less secret corporate score, which has to do directly with our relationship to branding, and that we must live our lives simply trying to improve on our corporate score–after all, they, that is, the system, the capitalist system that runs our lives, they do know much better than we do.  We need to submit completely.  The Chinese have made it explicit, and everybody else is working implicitly at it.

But I do think, I believe from the bottom of my heart, that the Yale professor who told the Israeli cybersecurity expert to get on with it, to give up on any resistance, any objection, any reluctance, should be given a low score and released into, I don’t know, a job as assistant manager at a NAPA auto parts store.  To be kind.  Give him some proper branding to do.  See how he fares.

4 thoughts on “Respondant Comments on UC-Davis symposium on “Academic Brands: Globalizing, Privatizing, and Quantifying the University.” March 22-23 2019.

  1. Unas notas importantes, Alberto. Gracias por compartirlas. Pero volviendo a tu pregunta inicial, yo me pregunto si el fin de la universidad pública desde el estado (o los state funding etc) no tiene que ver con la aceptación de la lógica del cost-benefit en la administración pública misma, ya que es una matriz que va más allá de lo ideológico. Es problema de la racionalidad. Y se concede esto, es obvio que no hay resistencia alguna. O que toda resistencia termina en el engranaje del valor. Pero esto es difícil para los liberales y sus compensaciones, como sabemos. Esta es mi tesis: estamos ante un momento anti-institucional radical pero eso es un proyecto de la propia racionalización del arte de administrar. Pero habrán otras explicaciones más sociológicas cuando se escriba una historia de la pregunta que haces.

  2. Esta intervención me parece incontestable entre los que aplauden la inevitabilidad del branding. Ahora bien, Alberto apunta hacia maneras para lidiar con esta Universidad, ahora bien, ¿cómo específicamente preparar ese claro, cómo habilitarlo, desocuparlo, sobre todo, para de alguna manera proteger a los más expuestos (estudiantes y jóvenes colegas) y vivir allí de otro modo cuando la administración y la anuencia de los colegas forman bloque?

  3. Gracias, Juan Carlos. Mi noción de existential clearing como alternativa a la papilla política de la universidad, donde tanto la derecha como la izquierda confluyen en sus estrategias destructivas, es el intento–incierto, improbable, escéptico, pero por otra parte quizás absolutamente urgente, absolutamente ineludible–de pensar un habitar otro bajo las condiciones contemporáneas (que no son las condiciones de los 80 ni de los 90 ni de los primeros años 2000: algo ha cambiado, y el cambio puede muy bien hacerse o haberse hecho ya irreversible). Nosotros, los mayores, podemos indignarnos más o menos, pero ya cobramos nuestro cheque, ya tenemos un acomodo, ya hemos vivido nuestra vida sin estar sometidos a las condiciones que hoy imperan: el problema es nuestro solo en la medida en que nos preocupamos por nuestros estudiantes. El problema real es el problema de nuestros estudiantes. Entonces, como tú preguntas, ¿cómo pueden pensarse maneras de protección? ¿Qué podemos hacer? Yo pienso que la “resistencia” en el sentido clásico de lidiar una batalla política en, por ejemplo, el Faculty Senate, con la idea de forzar la mano de los decanos, del provost, etc., está condenada a un fracaso eminentemente contraproductivo y desastroso que condenará al que lo intente a la marginación o peor. Pero si no puede haber resistencia, entonces ¿qué? Yo recomendaría una actitud más bien centrada en no dejarse caer, en aguantar y soportar la retirada del mundo universitario tal como nos gustaría que fuese sin convertirse en súbditos de lo nuevo. Es una posición difícil, con pocas compensaciones, y potencialmente solitaria. Por eso es tan esencial crear espacios de conversación y pensamiento alternativos a los de la universidad–espacios de pensamiento ajenos al espacio universitario, aunque estén poblados de universitarios. Es poco, pero es todo lo que puedo ofrecer de momento como idea.

    • Así mismo es, Alberto. En eso estamos. Hay días que de cara a los estudiantes, yo a menos, me desasosiego y no sé cómo ni con qué decirles que aguantemos. Un abrazo.

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