Archive for July, 2005

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“a blank check for tendentiousness”

July 24, 2005

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently reading through a collection of essays by Thomas Haskell. One of them, “Justifying Academic Freedom in the Era of Power/Knowledge” is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in the topic.

Haskell charts a moderate course in just about all of his essays: he is neither, as their detractors would call them, a “naive empiricist” nor is he, as their detractors would call them, an advocate of an “anything goes” approach to the world. Here he focuses on both the history and the present (as of the early 1990s, when he wrote the essay) of academic freedom, briefly sketching its origins and then critically examining whether or not the policy can still be justified on the basis of recent skeptical attacks on “truth” and “reality” (scare-quotes courtesy of skeptics). He is particularly critical of Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, and Hayden White, the implications of whose views Haskell argues actually undercut even the possibility of continuing to justify academic freedom to both academics and the general public.

As Haskell’s essay is not available online, I can only provide an excerpt here in the hopes that at least some of those involved in today’s academic freedom debates will read the whole thing if they have not done so already. The following quotation outlines what Haskell sees as the dangers of the tendency not just to try to insert politics into all aspects of academic life, but to see everything in terms of politics. It’s relevance, however, extends far beyond the confines of the academic world.

Some of the premises underlying academic freedom are open to serious objections, but the Victorians were not wrong to distinguish between motives more and less political. Those who see ominous political implications lurking beneath every bed and hiding behind every door, do so not because “that is the way the world is” – an impermissible formulation on their own premises, after all – but because of assumptions they deploy as a matter of choice. The skillful deployment of these assumptions is a kind of game. Foucault was past master and Fish a world-class practitioner, but anyone can play. Here’s how: First, acknowledge no limits to interpretation. Second, acknowledge no difference between intended and unintended consequences. Third, disregard all distinctions between acts of commission and omission. Fourth, firmly embrace (as if true) the logical fallacy of supposing that whoever is not for your cause is against it.

These axioms constitute a blank check for tendentiousness. Adopt them and you, too, will find that politics has expanded to fill your entire universe. Threatening agendas and scandalous breaches of responsibility will rear up on all sides; masks will fall away and sordid motives leap into view. Advocates of speech codes will be revealed (in the eyes of their opponents) as stealthy Stalinists; advocates of free speech will be revealed (in the eyes of their opponents) as covert bigots. Actions and inactions, words and silences, choices and accidents, things done and things left undone – all acts and omissions to act will testify to the universality of self-aggrandizement and the pervasiveness of political machination. Anyone who rebuffs your idea of a proper solution will be “part of the problem”; anyone who argues for an understanding of events more complicated than your own will be guilty of “blaming the victim.” Once these strategic premises are in place, responsibility will have been transformed from a concrete relation into a diffuse quality that floats freely through all relations, ready to be imputed to anyone, anytime. If it suits your needs, you can find fault with the person who sends his annual charitable donation to Amnesty International for not caring enough about world hunger, while simultaneously accusing the person who sends her contribution to Oxfam of being indifferent to torture – for from this standpoint, nothing evil “just happens.” Remember: good acts omitted are no less incriminating than evils committed; the indirect consequences of a person’s acts signify unconscious wishes, even if not conscious intention; moral liability extends as far as interpretation can carry it. And interpretation knows no bounds.

Once this perspective is adopted, Fish’s description is undeniable: politics floods the world, leaving, as he says, “no safe place.” It is a perspective from which academic freedom can be seen as an enviable political prize, well worth hanging onto; it is also one from which all efforts at justification have to be interpreted as self-serving rhetoric. Illogical though the assumptions underlying this perspective plainly are, their appeal today is great. Rieff may be right; we may already live in a culture that cannot conceive of acts that are not self-serving and can only define autonomy as the opportunity to use without being used. If so, the “safe place” the Victorian founders of the university tried to create under the banner of academic freedom is beyond any possibility of justification. One can only hope and trust that this is not the case.

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