The problem of academic freedom has always sustained as precisely that: a problem, or more precisely, a problematisation. Academic freedom marks a limit. It serves as an instrument for the measure of an incursion that surpasses a legitimate threshold between institutional power and the autonomy of knowledge production.
As such it raises a series of questions and concerns about the possibility of an action that goes too far, that imposes some illegitimate force upon the freedoms that lie on the other side. And, as is the case with all problematisations, its effect is productive — it serves as much to protect the integrity of certain objects and domains as it does to produce those domains themselves. In other words, it is a problematisation with ontologically formative consequences. In what follows, I would like to comment briefly on the contemporary form of the problematisation that academic freedom invokes in the United States, and the productivity this implies, with reference to two key processes: the first is the familiar one of neoliberalism, the second, the less recognised process of emotionalisation.
Academic Freedom in Crisis: The Series
Introduction: Academic Freedom in Crisis | Daniel Nehring and Dylan Kerrigan
The Transformation of UK Higher Education Since 1968 | Hugo Radice
The Soviet System, Neoliberalism and British Universities | Craig Brandist
The Financialisation of Academic Knowledge Production | Dylan Kerrigan
The Never-Ending Audit®: Questioning the Lecturer Experience | Daniel Nehring
As I understand it, the logic of neoliberalism is one that reconstitutes all realms of social life within a market-based framework for interaction. Its mantras are by now quite familiar: social realms formerly regulated by the state should be privatised and rendered open to competition, just as publicly funded childcare, education, housing, medicine, media, and so on should be replaced by profit-driven providers in a competitive market. But these measures are not just regulative but formative: they are meant to bring about specific changes within individuals themselves.
The withdrawal of state provisions conjures a spirit of independence and enterprise among individuals and organizations — a responsibilisation that is arrived at through the cultivation of an outlook and a uniquely enterprising disposition. Thus, the productivity, or the formative effect of what Foucault termed neoliberal governmentality is not just a government of intervention per se, but precisely the opposite: it is one of constructive and intentional non-intervention that seeks to transform the behaviours of individuals and groups specifically by refraining from governing too much.
So, how might we say that academic freedom accomplishes all that? The origins of the problem of academic freedom, as a problem of governing too much, lie in the struggle of liberal democracies to preserve a space of autonomy for the subject of knowledge against state authoritarianism. Michael Polanyi, an early architect of the argument for academic freedom witnessed this first hand in a visit to Soviet Russia in the 1930’s. There he saw the subordination of academic inquiry under state planning, which was responsible for the backwardness of Soviet agricultural science and a colossal pattern of failed farming policies.
Polanyi’s critique, which he published in 1940 in The Contempt of Freedom, condemned the cooperative imperative of state planning as a basis for scientific research, arguing instead for a market model in which competition generated intellectual, scientific and artistic developments that should not be measured according to their immediate value for social projects. These themes are reflected in the United States in the ‘Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,’ taken up by the American Association of University Professors, which asserts the rights of faculty members to advance their research without facing the censure of political authorities internal or external to the academic system. In both cases, knowledge had to be defended against tyranny. And what was being defended was the freedom of scientific inquiry – a vocation premised on a certain kind of subject, capable of applying a certain kind of intellectual capacity. Rational, critical, scientific, the subject of academic freedom was in many ways envisioned as an intellectual homologue of the self-interested subject of utilitarianism, at work making rational calculations amid the bustle of market environments. This, I would argue, was the productivity of academic freedom’s problematisation: the subject formed was a critical/rational one, capable of maintaining scientific distance against the imposition of state power from above.
Since then, the problem of academic freedom has reappeared to establish a very different set of boundaries and problematisations, and to shape some very different kinds of subjects. Amid the social revolts of the 1960s, and in the Politically Correct campus movements of the 1980s and 90s, the subject of academic freedom came under attack, not from above, from the political authority of the state, but from below, from an activist social movement discourse brandishing a new definition of knowledge and freedom.
Against the Eurocentric canon, a newly personalized way of knowing was mobilised, one that held the ‘personal as political,’ while demanding the dismantling of the regimes of rationality identified with the traditional subject of knowledge. The purportedly rational subject of academic freedom was implicated in the monopolisation of knowledge by a largely white, male technocratic elite, whose scientific stance was the token of privilege, and whose marginalisation of everything that endangered its rationality (emotional states, felt associations, experiences, standpoint epistemologies, embodied forms of knowledge), became the target of new student mobilisations.
Academic freedom went from being a critical to a regulative term, from a point of insubordination to one of control. In the writings of Alan Bloom and Alan Dershowitz, academic freedom served as a bulwark against challenges to the very dignity of the institution of knowledge itself. At the gates were the barbarians, who invoked intellectual attributes (standpoint epistemologies, subaltern experiences, etc.) which, owing to their rootedness in emotions, standpoints and interpretations, could not be defended as ‘freedoms’ per se.
The integration of these new forms of embodied and experiential knowledge into academic life in American universities and colleges has been slow and uneven, though it has nonetheless made steady progress since the canon wars of the 20th century. This has principally been through the ballooning infrastructure of support staff, the centring curricular and pedagogical aims on student experiences, and the reinvention of higher education on a service industry model. Through the expansion of student support staff not directly related to academic learning, the neoliberalisation of higher education has codified the becoming personal of the political (or in this case, the pedagogical) that was the slogan of student mobilizations a few decades ago, and forced the discussion of academic freedom onto its terms. What is at stake now, in academic freedom, is not only the freedom to think, speak and generate knowledge, but the freedom, even the requirement that one becomes a certain kind of person in order to think and speak in certain kinds of ways.
What is at stake now is not just knowledge, but the interpersonal effects of certain kinds of knowledge on the sensibilities of certain kinds of people
In this way, the discussion has moved from the discursive and cognitive (what one knows and says) to the personal and existential character of the holder of knowledge itself. In other words, what is at stake now is not just knowledge, but the interpersonal effects of certain kinds of knowledge on the sensibilities of certain kinds of people. If knowledge is redefined to include all of these extra-discursive effects, perhaps there are acts of violence embedded in what we had previously thought of as legitimate exercises of academic freedom? Perhaps it is time, the argument goes, to radically redraw the boundaries of that freedom itself. And by redefining these effects, it has become possible to impose radically new demands on what kinds of people those producing knowledge are. At the heart of this neoliberal strategy of government is the objective of inviting, even constraining individuals, to cultivate living capacities within themselves — capacities that can be generalised under the category of emotional life. As such, the problem of academic freedom serves as a medium through which the effects of neoliberalism on the formation of certain kinds of subjects take the form of compulsory emotionalisation.
But what does neoliberalism have to do with emotionalisation? Neoliberal capitalism has evolved new forms capital around our personal, affective and emotional capacities. Capitalism today not only recognises emotion in the lives of workers, consumer and citizens, but has discovered the value of emotions in capitalist enterprise itself, organised around the imperatives of a service industry. Emotions now have value as a component of ‘human capital,’ something we are all encouraged to develop within our own dispositions and sensibilities. Today we speak of emotional labour, emotional investments and a broader ‘emotionalisation’ of economic and social life — a process that demands that emotions be produced, cultivated and managed opportunistically in new and aggressive ways.
Emotions are not only labour commodities to be sold, but also social assets to be refined and communicated – objectives for which new forms of self-help and popular psychology stand ready to lend assistance. The responsible subject of academic freedom is here required to produce the necessary human capital – an emotionalisation of her position as a holder of knowledge – as part of the terms of her labour contract. To do less is to fail to meet the terms of work under neoliberalism. In other words, while the PC wars of the 80s and 90s introduced a new personalist sensibility into the political discussion, it seems to me that this sensibility has taken on dramatic new forms, and entered into strategic alliances with other forces, both on campus and in the wider society.
A student led politics of emotional disposition has incorporated what had been an activist discourse into the logic of organisational management. But it has also drawn significantly on a wider redefinition of learning itself as a commercial service, commensurate with a consumerist view in which the student appears as a customer. Emotional discomforts resulting from exposure to certain kinds of knowledge are assessed as flaws or deficiencies in the delivery of that knowledge itself, understood as a commodity.
Or, worse, these emotional discomforts are taken as incontrovertible evidence of the moral immaturity of the holder of knowledge herself, badly in need of reconstruction. Part of this derives from the diminishment of faculty in many American universities to emotional service providers, and their replacement by professional staff, trained in human resource management from the standpoint of behaviourist managerial psychologies. Employing psychological account of emotional life drawn from cognitive behavioural therapy and humanistic psychology, the freedoms necessary for intellectual practice have been redefined with new insights into the effects of knowledge on the emotional wellbeing of students, and on the implicit, unconscious intentions of instructors.
Two important instances can be considered: a broad focus on ‘microaggressions,’ has entered into discussions of knowledge production in academic life, by which is meant ‘a brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour’. Academic freedom was never meant to include the right to do harm, and with ‘harm’ defined so broadly, new challenges are made to such freedoms on behalf of its victims. Thus the responsible subject of academic freedom is a sensitive subject, or must be remade so through re-education and training. Similarly, discussion of ‘trigger warnings’ assumes the vulnerability of students to forms of knowledge that might excite the experience of repressed traumas, particularly those associated with racial or sexual violence. Both of these concerns move significantly beyond a discourse of academic freedom premised on the legitimacy of the content of particular forms of knowledge. What is at stake here is the emotional tone of the delivery of this knowledge, and the emotional effects of its sharing.
Sam Binkley is associate professor of sociology at Emerson College, Boston. His research examines the various ways in which subjectivity is produced in contemporary society through lifestyle literatures and popular texts. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s notions of biopower and governmentality, but also from a range of critical theorists, he has undertaken studies into self help literature and popular psychology, lifestyle movements of the 1970s, racism and anti-racism, and the emotional cultures of neoliberalism, all with an eye toward the fashioning of subjectivity in these contexts. In addition to authoring two research monographs; Happiness as Enterprise: An Essay on Neoliberal Life (SUNY) and Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Duke), he has published articles in such journals as History of Human Sciences, Time and Society, Cultural Studies, Rethinking Marxism, The European Journal of Cultural Studies and the Journal for Cultural Research. He currently serves as co-editor of the journal Foucault Studies.