Saturday, February 17, 2018

Disciplining Orthodoxy in the Neo Liberal Academy: What Amy Wax and George Ciccariello-Maher Can Teach Us About the State of the Market-Place of Ideas in the Academy

(Pix  Larry Catá Backer 2018)

I recent Wall Street Journal essay authored by Professor Amy Wax noted
There is a lot of abstract talk these days on American college campuses about free speech and the values of free inquiry, with lip service paid to expansive notions of free expression and the marketplace of ideas. What I’ve learned . . . is that most of this talk is not worth much. It is only when people are confronted with speech they don’t like that we see whether these abstractions are real to them. (What Can’t Be Debated on Campus)
Professor Wax, of course, was writing about what she had learned in the wake of the publication of an essay she authored with Professor Larry Alexander (“Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture”) which also lamented the state of affairs in academia that this aftermath reveals. This essay resonated with an earlier piece of reporting about the resignation of Professor Ciccariello-Maher from Drexel University,  noting that "Staying at Drexel in the eye of this storm has become detrimental to my own writing, speaking, and organizing." (here).

This got me thinking more generally about the way that academics are embedded in the production of knowledge and in their role as guardians of authority and legitimacy in . It is always interesting to see how the marketplace of ideas is being managed by its guardians.  It is even more interesting to see exposed its disciplinary character where orthodoxies clash for dominance within the idea factories that the university appears to have become. More interesting still has been the way that the academy has overtaken the Church and other norm producing institutions as the priesthood for those basic principles (not the premises underlying them to be sure--those are rarely debated) for the orderly management of the institutions of state, of society and of good order and proper thinking.    

As Professors Wax and Ciccariello-Maher might have inadvertently noted, Philadelphia, once the cradle of the core principles on which this Republic was founded centuries ago, may once again appear to serve as cradle, this time of a "New Era" ideological order, one which, ironically enough, is grounded on the alignment of core global market principles with the development and management of idea sets deemed suitable for mass consumption by ordinary people and authoritative enough for use in justifying economic, political, social and religious activity buy those in control of such institutions. One gets a sense of this new markets based working style for speech by considering the course of academic factional fighting involving quite distinct ideological-political academic camps.

Brief thoughts on this theme follows. The object is not to weigh in on the value or merits of whatever ideas have been causing contrioversy (and job related troubles) for faculty. There are more than enough of my colleagues eager for that job.  Rather the object is to think a little more deeply about the structures of managing knowledge and the communities that produce this commodity that appear to be giving form to and providing the rules of engagement for this important sector of production. One has already seen some of the realignments in the field of political speech by institutions (e.g., here).  One now sees emerging the bones of the new rules of production in the academic sector.

It is in that context the university assumes a role far greater than its social or economic position would otherwise merit, as a flash point for ideas with respect to which  neither its members nor the greater social, political, religious, or economic communities want to hear much less expose for unfiltered contemplation or consumption. This is particularly the case in specific historical eras--like this one in the West especially--where fracture within the norm producing elites have created conditions of civil war among ways of seeing the world and on that basis understanding and valuing approaches to attainment of "the good," the "true", the "correct" and distinguishing it from those other ideas and premises which become taboo (not because they are wrong, necessarily, but because they contradict or challenge the core principles of the ruling ideology). 

It is in this context that the notions of free speech and the disciplining of discourse assume their contemporary forms, and the principles they are meant to represent assume their current understanding (to the advantage and strategic deployment by whatever faction appears to control the mechanisms of institutional power within which such speech may be offered for consumption). The Academy has developed exquisite mechanisms  for the disciplining of ideas and for managing debate in the context of this quite fierce battle for authority and narrative control among the normative factional camps now each believing that they are or ought to be the keepers of the  Regimen Morum with its now academic censors of the rules within which ideas may be debated and taboos delineated, mores populi regunto (Cicero, De legibus iii.3.).

But perhaps more interesting still is the way in which even market-despising elements of this wars for narrative control have found it both expedient and useful to use the core mechanisms of the market--the core principles and operating modes of the neo-liberal global constructs many of them purport to despise--in the service of their own agendas. That is, even as the principal combatants appear to utter some sort of word combinations in which they declare some sort of fidelity to (their notion of) free speech and open debate, most of these combatants then immediately do two thing: (1) they meet the arguments despised with counter argument; and (2) they seek to mobilize market forces to ensure that their opponents are punished by threatening their positions or their jobs. That more than anything else suggests that whatever words are uttered within this market place of ideas that the core ideals of neo liberal markets based economics has now become so deeply ingrained that even its fiercest opponents cannot but help to resort to it disciplinary mechanics ion their efforts to undermine their intellectual enemies. 

There is irony here aplenty.  Both the rise of contemporary free speech principles int he United States, and the protection of the economic positions of academics engaged in debates about core ruling ideological principles, were born of the success of efforts to protect the rights of what then had been viewed as taboo breaking academic arguments seeking radical change from the core ideologies and governance working styles of the times.  Free speech is perhaps the greatest product of an era when the state itself stepped in to protect the speech rights of individuals and academics who argued (and agitated) for racial, equality. It produced a state protected space within which the radical changes that marks the boundaries of modern orthodoxy were made possible.  Academic freedom was norm of a response (and a willingness of institutions to concede)  an institutional space within which ideas obnoxious to then contemporary orthodoxy (and indeed that challenged the authority and legitimacy of its norms and principles) could be heard, considered, ridiculed or perhaps adopted by society (generally here, and here). 

Those tools and concessions that made such fundamental changes possible now appear threatening because of its potential to effect even more change (whether one calls its reactionary, progressive, or whatever--such labels reflecting intellectual judgments and little else).  And so the reflex is to resort, once again, to the mechanisms of social and economic control, to manage the boundaries of permitted (or acceptable) speaking and opinion, and to not merely condemn as inane but to invoke the market forces of labor discipline and social control to ensure that speech outliers are appropriately punished for deviations from orthodoxy.  And all adversarial camps have been quite clever in seeking to fill old principles with new meaning that suits their own agendas (see, e.g., here, here, and here).

None of this is new.  The novelty, however, is provided by the fundamental premises of markets ordering of the global neo-liberal order.  That order, and its principles, make it possible to repackage these debates as the production of commodities--the selling of consumables (ideas and calls to action)--with respect to which their manufacturers may use all of the techniques of market competition to  secure markets and advance domination of the technologies of use.  "Free Speech" and "academic freedom" then serve as the principles within which states and other institutions might be able to manage the competition among these product manufacturers and to ensure against monopoly. That is, even as free speech and academic freedom are protected as political principles, they play an opposite role (data points affecting consumption decisions and social interaction) in the economic and social spheres (e.g., here, and here). And it has acquired an international dimension as the utility of the production of knowledge and the contests over the core narratives through which ideas can be managed as valuable or taboo, increasingly has global consequences in politics (e.g., here, here, here). Intellectual battles, battles for the control of the narrative that gives authority to principles and ideas and condemn others to obscurity are now matters of international relations, and global production.

In the course of these market wars, institutions have arisen to protect the economic and social interests of faculty producing ideas.  Yet even these are as divided in some respect by the ruling ideologies of those who control them.  At one end of the spectrum one sees the rise of organizations like Fire as a the most effective and aggressive defender of idea-marketplace  ideals int he service of which producer's access to the market (their jobs and social positions) must be protected.  At the other end, organizations like AAUP have now started campaigns to organize protection for the professorate espousing a specific set of ideological views considered by AAUP under more intense threat.  The AAUP's Anti-Targeted Harassment Campaign notes:
The 2016 election has exacerbated a political climate that was already inimical to academic freedom. Six years ago the American Association of University Professors conveyed its concern that “the war on terror, the conflict in the Middle East, and a resurgence of the culture wars in such scientific fields as health and the environment” had created an atmosphere “in which partisan political interests threaten to overwhelm academic judgment.” [“Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Personnel Decisions,” in Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors (supplement to Academe), 2011, 88.] Since the election, we have seen a resurgence of politically motivated witch hunts against academic scientists working in fields such as climate change and fetal tissue research, where the implications of scientific findings are perceived as threats by entrenched interests and partisan ideologues. In addition to the “danger zones” for academic freedom enumerated in 2011, issues related to racial justice have also come to the forefront in the course of the last two years and played a prominent role in the most recent election. (AAUP, Targeted Online Harassment of Faculty)
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire) appears to take a more libertarian approach to speech and the use of market devices for its indirect management.
The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE’s core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them. . . .  freedom of speech is under continuous threat at many of America’s campuses, pushed aside in favor of politics, comfort, or simply a desire to avoid controversy. As a result, speech codes dictating what may or may not be said, “free speech zones” confining free speech to tiny areas of campus, and administrative attempts to punish or repress speech on a case-by-case basis are common today in academia. [FIRE Mission]
Ironically, the work of both FIRE and AAUP remind us both that speech has become a commodity that is embedded within the business decisions of the academic industry, and that the fractures in the idea industry has now also made faculty both producers of competing idea-commodities and complicit in efforts to use market forces against competitors.  And with that, of course, the markets based character of speech is complete. Because it is not merely outside consumers who threaten speech and deploy the forces of economic and social pressure against its producers; rather it is the producers themselves, aggressively seeking greater market share and to diminish the impact of competitors in the production and consumption of ideas, that give the contemporary landscape of speech its unique character.

One gets a sense of the shape of this "New Era" marketplace by considering the way that competing factions (producers) respond to speech and ideas that appear to threaten their position and control of the structures of the markets within which products (ideas) are deemed acceptable and suitable for sale and consumption. From the ideological "left" consider the stories of George Ciccariello-Maher and Steven Salaita.  From the ideological right consider the stories of Laura Kipnis, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander.  In all these cases speech annoyed their ideological opponents sufficiently that the administrative machinery of the university could be deployed to produce indirect pressure and threats with substantial effects on their economic positions within the marketplace of ideas. Professor Ciccariello-Maher eventually resigned given the intensity of social and administrative pressure built around the protection of speech; Professor Salaita resorted to the courts for protection of his economic and reputational interests; Professor Kipnis was subjected to administrative process that served in its own way to expose  its utility as a tool of speech discipline; and Professor Wax and Alexander have felt pressure to "take time off" or to be removed from teaching large classes or were publicly reprimanded by their administrators (e.g., here). 

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